Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet 10 June 1819 – 31 December 1877) was a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting. Committed to painting only what he could see, he rejected academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation of visual artists. His independence set an example that was important to later artists, such as the Impressionists and the Cubists. Courbet occupies an important place in 19th-century French painting as an innovator and as an artist willing to make bold social statements through his work.
Courbet's paintings of the late 1840s and early 1850s brought him his first recognition. They challenged convention by depicting unidealized peasants and workers, often on a grand scale traditionally reserved for paintings of religious or historical subjects. Courbet's subsequent paintings were mostly of a less overtly political character: landscapes, seascapes, hunting scenes, nudes and still lifes. He was imprisoned for six months in 1871 for his involvement with the Paris Commune, and lived in exile in Switzerland from 1873 until his death.
Gustave Courbet was born in 1819 to Régis and Sylvie Oudot Courbet in Ornans (department of Doubs). Being a prosperous farming family, anti-monarchical feelings prevailed in the household. (His maternal grandfather fought in the French Revolution.) Courbet's sisters, Zoé, Zélie and Juliette, were his first models for drawing and painting. After moving to Paris he often returned home to Ornans to hunt, fish and find inspiration.
He went to Paris in 1839 and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse. An independent spirit, he soon left, preferring to develop his own style by studying the paintings of Spanish, Flemish and French masters in the Louvre, and painting copies of their work.
His first works were an Odalisque inspired by the writing of Victor Hugo and a Lélia illustrating George Sand, but he soon abandoned literary influences, choosing instead to base his paintings on observed reality. Among his paintings of the early 1840s are several self-portraits, Romantic in conception, in which the artist portrayed himself in various roles. These include Self-Portrait with Black Dog (c. 1842–44, accepted for exhibition at the 1844 Paris Salon), the theatrical Self-Portrait which is also known as Desperate Man (c. 1843–45), Lovers in the Countryside (1844, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), The Sculptor (1845), The Wounded Man (1844–54, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), The Cellist, Self-Portrait (1847, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, shown at the 1848 Salon), and Man with a Pipe (1848–49, Musée Fabre, Montpellier).
Trips to the Netherlands and Belgium in 1846–47 strengthened Courbet's belief that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals and other Dutch masters had. By 1848, he had gained supporters among the younger critics, the Neo-romantics and Realists, notably Champfleury.
Courbet achieved his first Salon success in 1849 with his painting After Dinner at Ornans. The work, reminiscent of Chardin and Le Nain, earned Courbet a gold medal and was purchased by the state. The gold medal meant that his works would no longer require jury approval for exhibition at the Salon—an exemption Courbet enjoyed until 1857 (when the rule changed).
Important works from this period include several paintings of trout, "hooked and bleeding from the gills",that have been interpreted as allegorical self-portraits of the exiled artist. Courbet also worked on sculpture during his exile. Previously, in the early 1860s, he had produced a few sculptures, one of which—the Fisherman of Chavots (1862)—he donated to Ornans for a public fountain, but it was removed after Courbet's arrest.
On 4 May 1877, Courbet was told the estimated cost of reconstructing the Vendôme Column; 323,091 francs and 68 centimes. He was given the option paying the fine in yearly installments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years, until his 91st birthday. On 31 December 1877, a day before the first installment was due, Courbet died, aged 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking.