The Salon continued.
You know the routine. If your girl-friend says “It’s not you it’s me” it really
means “It is you and you’re getting dumped.” If someone says “Can I be honest with you?” they really
mean “I’m going to say something really nasty in a sort of nice way.” Something similar happened with
art during 1850’s and the Salon saw its power being challenged more and more. Gustave Courbet
produced art that he dubbed his “realism” which meant it was going to have little or nothing to say that
was complimentary to humanity. It was going to say something nasty while flying the banner of truth.
Courbet painted peasants worn down and dehumanized by the struggles of life while other painters
sentimentalized and romanticized the peasantry. Who was right: the realists who said with painting
“life is ugly” or the traditionalists who said “life is beautiful.”? There is the saying “True words aren’t
always pretty and pretty words aren’t always true.” But then again if you search diligently for the
negative and set out on a fault-finding mission, you will succeed in your pursuit of unhappiness.
Anyways, in spite of initial opposition, it seems that the “life is ugly” party won the day. Courbet’s
Burial at Ornans
depicts very
ordinary to
somewhat ugly
people gathered
around for a
somber occasion
of a funeral.
There is nothing
uplifting here.
This enormous
canvas with forty life size figures would be enough to cloud the day of a Care Bear or Barney the Purple
Dinosaur. Courbet, never someone to be modest, bragged that his work was “the burial of
The Salon, the critics and the public wanted paintings to
display life the way is appears in modern beer commercials,
(debonair, stylish, young, sun-bronzed men with coiffed hair
whose witty and insightful observations immensely entertain
a gaggle of fetchingly beautiful women with perfect bodies to
match their sharp minds). Courbet gave them balding, beerbellied, belching, drunks engaging in a contest of seeing who
could pass wind the loudest, making the nearby women more
depressed and shattering theirs hopes of finding a knight in
shining armor. The Stonebreakers, executed in 1849 depicts a
youth too young for hard labor and an elderly senior too old for it, both engaged in a monotonous,
demanding and perhaps pointless task. Their hidden faces emphasize the loss of their humanity in their
soul destroying work.
The most common response to his painting was “How ugly.”
Napoleon the III wacked the monstrous bare bum of the nude girl
in Courbet’s “Bathers” (1853) to show his disgust. The art critic,
Delecluze remarked that “His bather is so monstrously ugly that
she would spoil a crocodile’s appetite.” While his art had ugly
subject matter, it was always beautifully painted. Even critics
would give him the credit that “His technique is that of the
masters”. Another called him the “Raphael of paving stones.”
Courbet relished the criticism, declared that “Realism is by
essence the art of democracy”, and identified himself on
letterhead as “Gustave Courbet, master painter, without ideal and
without religion.” In 1848 the Salon was thrown open to all
comers and he exhibited 10 works. At another time, in 1855,
enraged that only 11 or his 14 works had be accepted by the
Salon, he responded by holding his own show at a fairgrounds.
This dramatically expanded his public profile, but was a financial disaster. At times Courbet did relent
and paint beauty to satisfy customers. Whenever he did a work featuring himself, his egocentric
personality came out clearly. While he didn’t resort to directly painting a halo around himself, he left
that to be suggested by other elements of the composition. However, he never sold out completely on
his devotion to “realism”.
Gradual acceptance came and he was eventually offered the Legion of Honor. True to his
revolutionary politics, he turned it down saying “When I am dead, let it be said of me: ‘He belonged to
no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of
liberty’”. In 1870 the government was overthrown by the short-lived Paris Commune. The Commune,
(we owe our modern word communist to them) made Courbet the head of the Paris Art Commission.
One of his first acts was to tear down a massive monument of Napoleon the III, dressed, true to the
Salon artistic tradition, in a Roman toga. A year later, when the Commune was crushed, Courbet was
billed for the cost of the statue and column that it rested on. Courbet went into exile in Switzerland
where he died a broken and forgotten man.
The next generation of L’enfant terribles (unconventional embarrassments to society) was headed by
Edouard Manet who combined realism, (meaning ugliness) with more of a slap-dash style than his
predecessor, Courbet. He too saw many of his works rejected by the Salon and exhibited them in
private shows and eventually in the publically held Salon de la Refuses. But that story will be continued
later. Suffice to say that other painters took Courbet’s revolution in directions that he may not have
In your opinion, who is right, the “life is ugly” or the “life is beautiful” artists? In a paragraph, support
your answer.