Van Gogh •
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Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans in the Franche-Comté, the son of a comfortable family that was
half peasant, half bourgeois, and very proud of its revolutionary ancestry. Courbet, a handsome young man, went to Paris in 1840 to study art, taking almost no instruction but working in the Louvre and from models. He began as a Romantic, seeing himself in early self-portraits as a rather Byronic figure. The Revolution of 1848 swept away the last vestiges of Courbet's romantic tendencies and he became a realist. As such, he was able to paint only what he saw in the world around him and the simple life of plain people. By 1849 such naturalistic works as The Stone Breakers (destroyed in 1945 in the bombing of Dresden) indicated by their subject matter and treatment that he had answered Baudelaire's plea for paintings that expressed "the heroism of modern life."
Courbet's own life was fairly heroic: as an artist, he was both greatly admired and greatly detested. As a man, he was imprisoned for his part in the Commune uprising of 1871, spent six months in prison, and then went to live in exile in Switzerland where he died, still owing the French government a large sum charged to him for the destruction of the Vendome column. Throughout his life he fought with both government authorities and public taste but continued to paint as he pleased, for as Ingres said of him in 1849 "he is an eye."
Courbet responded in his paintings to the world in which he was brought up: people, animals both wild and tame, fruits and flowers, landscapes, and seascapes. His palette, at first dark or restrained, became warmer and brighter as he grew older. A master of technique, he could apply paint as smoothly as enamel or in thick corrugations. His ability to paint texture, particularly that of animal pelts, was matchless. His fruits are round and full, bursting with sweetness; his flowers delicately differentiated; his landscapes forceful. Courbet brought life to inanimate objects, love and understanding to human beings.