Courbet and the Realist Revolution

In 1848 the young French painter Gustave Courbet and a circle of dissident artists and intellectuals regularly met at a Parisian café called the Brasserie Andler. It was there after many lively discussions that the term “Realism” was first used to describe the style of art and literature the mavericks were striving for. The art establishment richly rewarded those who painted highly romanticized scenes of the well-heeled at work and play. But Courbet believed art must show life as it is, and advocated artists getting involved in the social issues of the day. The fact that he painted ordinary working people and peasants in naturalistic settings outraged the well-to-do. It should go without saying that Courbet had a troubled relationship with the art authorities of the day. In 1850 he wrote:

“In our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.”

In 1855, after his work was rejected by the Universal Exhibition, Courbet set up a tent outside the exhibit hall and held a one-man show he called Le Réalisme. The accompanying exhibition catalog he titled “Realist Manifesto”, a brochure that helped initiate the coming revolution in painting – Impressionism. Every working artist should embrace Courbet’s exemplary spirit of defiance, because while art has changed certain dynamics have not. We have a new entrenched art establishment that is every bit as elitist and distant from the people as the officials Courbet faced in his day. It is time to pitch our own tents in front of the edifices of the postmodern to announce the return of the painters.

To learn more about Gustave Courbet, I highly recommend T. J. Clark’s, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution.

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