From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914

Late Nineteenth-Century Painting

Who was Gustave Courbet?

Unlike Millet, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) was open about being inspired by the 1848 revolutions in France. He was known for his socially radical beliefs and his loyalty to his hometown of Ornans, near the border with Switzerland. He believed that artists could only authentically represent their own experiences and rejected traditional academic views on painting. He disliked history painting and believed that art could not be taught. His painting, The Stone Breakers (1849), predates Millet’s depiction of rural poverty, and similarly shows two laborers breaking large stones along the side of a road—back-breaking work. There are certain Romantic elements to the painting, such as the sense of nostalgia for the simplicity of rural life, and like The Gleaners, the faces of the workers are hidden. Some critics considered this painting a satire that juxtaposes demanding physical labor with the mechanical processes of the Industrial Revolution. The canvas is quite large for such a subject at nearly nine feet long and five feet high. Even bigger was Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans (1849), which depicted a countryside funeral and is over twenty-one feet long. It was heavily criticized for depicting something as mundane as a poor man’s funeral on such a large scale, but that was exactly Courbet’s point. The monumentality of the image brings dignity to the ordinary working class and to the rural countryside.


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