“In our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage,” wrote Gustave Courbet, the father of French Realism born on June 10, 1819. “I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.” Courbet was nothing if not direct in his address to his audience or in his choice of subject matter. Courbet’s dedication to realism, to portraying his time exactly as it was, free of all mythology and Romanticism, inspired the Impressionists to seek out the everyday in their subject matter and helped liberate all Realist painters ever since.
Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans (above) captures the scene of Courbet’s uncle’s funeral, with realistic portraits of the actual attendees of the funeral. With this simple scene of simple people, Courbet set off a firestorm in the art world. Courbet saw his Burial as “the burial of Romanticism,” which is, of course, an exaggeration, but speaks a truth about how this work tamed the excesses of Romanticism and replaced it with a new respect for the quotidian lives of regular people as an acceptable subject for painting. No longer would the gods and goddesses of mythology and the kings and queens of Europe dominate canvasses.
Art was serious business for Courbet. “I have studied the art of the masters and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice,” Courbet wrote. “I have no more wanted to imitate the former than to copy the latter; nor have I thought of achieving the idle aim of art for art’s sake.” Behind Courbet’s Realism lies a Socialist political agenda in tune with the struggle of the everyman and everywoman for freedom and dignity.