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The Courbet artist’s atelier of 1854 is probably the greatest work promoting the activity of an artist in the history of art. And today it is kept in one of my favorite museums in Paris, the Musèe d’Orsay.

The subject of the work

Courbet is represented while he paints in his studio. A studio that looks almost like a cave. The artist is surrounded by a mysterious crowd made up of people all different from each other. The individual figures are portrayed vividly, but collectively they make no sense.

Who are all these people and why did they gather here? Courbet wrote a long description of the painting. His language, however, was often considered unclear and open to various interpretations. There is no doubt however that this is one of the central masterpieces of 19th century painting.

The artist wrote that the figures on the left represent “the world of ordinary life: the masses, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited, the exploiters, those who thrive on death”. On the right are “my friends, colleagues and art lovers”, the ones who “thrive in life”.

The Paris Universal Exposition of 1855

The work was made for the great Paris Universal Exposition of 1855. However, it was rejected by the selection committee. So Courbet set up his solo exhibition in a “Pavilion of Realism” which he financed at his own expense. Courbet’s exhibition was not a great success both commercially and critically. But it still has an important place in the history of art. By challenging the authority of the institutional art world, Courbet paved the way for others, including the Impressionists.

Although Courbet was admittedly a realist, his paintings often have symbolic aspects. For example, Courbet’s Artist’s Atelier has a rather confusing subtitle: “Real allegory that sums up seven years of my artistic and moral life”. 

The details of Courbet’s artist’s atelier

The artist

In the foreground in the center seated while painting is the artist, courbet himself. He is represented while he is making a sweeping brush gesture. In fact, he wouldn’t have worked on his easel in this awkward, sideways position. But he was probably particularly narcissistic and adopted the posture to show what he considered his profile to be particularly beautiful. The nude model behind him has been interpreted as an embodiment of the truth. And the little boy who looks at him in admiration was seen as an allusion to innocence.

The man who reads on the right

Sitting among Courbet’s friends on the right is a man who reads. This is Charles Baudelaire, one of the leading French poets of the time and also a famous art critic. Baudelaire met Courbet in 1848 at the Brasserie Andler, a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. And so he enters the circle of Courbet, nicknamed “The temple of realism”.

The collectors

The couple standing in front of Baudelaire and a stone’s throw from the seated artist have been described by Courbet himself as art lovers or collectors. Courbet writes: “a fashionable woman, elegantly dressed, with her husband”. They have certainly not been identified, although several hypotheses have been made about their identity.

The businessman on the left

The characters on the left of the work as stated by Courbet himself come from the world of ordinary life. And so it would seem also for the seated man who looks down with a particular tall hat. is identified as the entrepreneur. Various identifications have been proposed for this figure, including that of the gravedigger. Perhaps the most plausible hypothesis is that it is a portrait of the journalist Émile de Girardin, a key supporter of Emperor Napoleon III, whose regime Courbet opposes.

Napoleon III and the dogs

The figure on the left in the foreground sitting with the hunting dogs has been convincingly identified as Emperor Napoleon III. Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III was elected president of France in 1848. And he assumed the title of emperor in 1852. At the time it was not possible to openly criticize his dictatorial policies due to censorship.

But Courbet does so perhaps through his work. So he decides to represent the new emperor in the guise of a poacher surrounded by his hunting dogs. Napoleon will be deposed in 1870 after leading France to a catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and will end his life in exile in England.

The writer Champfleury

Courbet’s description of this work appears for the first time in an 1854 letter to his friend Jules Husson. The same man who is represented in the work sitting while watching the artist at work, just behind the naked model. Jules Husson, wrote under the pseudonym Champfleury and was a close friend of Courbet and the leading literary spokesperson for realism. 

The technique in Courbet’s artist’s studio Courbet

‘s technique as a painter is a direct expression of his personality. Bold, confident and indifferent to conventions. He usually worked quickly and spontaneously, applying the paint with a spatula. He wasn’t interested in fine detail or a neat finish. The Courbet artist’s studio was painted just in time to prepare it for the exhibition and much of the background is very imprecise in handling. If he had more time, Courbet would probably have worked it out more. He had little interest in drawing, but like other painters of the time, he kept a collection of nude photographs for use as reference material.

Gustave Courbet. The history of the artist

Courbet has changed the course of French art by bringing a new grandeur and seriousness to the scenes of everyday life and exhibiting his works outside traditional places.

Courbet was born in Ornans, eastern France, into a wealthy farming family. 

His past was of great importance. Although he worked mainly in Paris, he often represented subjects related to the campaign. He became famous in 1850 when he exhibited three extraordinary paintings at the Paris Salon, most notably Funeral at Ornans, a huge and provocatively non-idealized scene of country life. These works made him immediately become the leader of the realist movement. The artists of this movement believed that everyday life could provide arguments as serious as the main traditional themes of history, religion and mythology. Courbet’s radical ideas also emerged in his politics. 

When France was overwhelmingly defeated in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), Paris was ruled for two months by a revolutionary government called the Commune, in which Courbet headed the artistic commission. When the Paris Commune is abolished, courbet is jailed for six months. Fearing further punishment, he moved permanently to Switzerland in 1873. Here, in addition to his compositions of ambitious figures, he painted landscapes and portraits. And he died a few years later, in 1877. 

France in the time of Gustave Courbet

Courbet experienced an unstable period in French politics, with numerous changes in the types of government. After Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile in 1815, the monarchy was restored under Louis XVIII. His successor Charles X flees when his repressive regime provokes a revolution in July 1830. He is replaced by Louis Philippe, whose reign, known as the July monarchy, lasts until 1848, when there is another revolution. 

The result is a republican government known as the Second Republic, with Louis Napoleon as president, and then emperor as Napoleon III in 1852. This ushers in the Second Empire, which lasts until 1870. It is followed by the Third Republic, which ends when Germany invades France in 1940.

Cover: Gustave Courbet, The artist’s studio, 1854–1855, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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