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“The Representation of the Real”: Courbet, Manet, Realism and French Modernity Essay

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Updated: Apr 10th, 2020

Both Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet were self-identified founding pioneers of the Realist movement. They exemplified the trend in French art termed Modernity, defined by the poet Charles Baudelaire as a pursuit of “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent”1. These artists rejected received wisdom, whether regarding social issues, or brushwork technique. However, their approaches reflected their personal interests, and are thus noticeably distinct from each other.

Born 13 years apart (a half generation, at most), both artists were rigorously and academically trained. Courbet, the elder, moved from tiny Ornans to Besancon to study with Jean Louis David2. Courbet’s meticulous draftsmanship shows in his scientific grasp of human anatomy, e.g. in The Source . His traditional technique, involves fine brushwork and studio settings. Edouard Manet trained with the history painting specialist, Thomas Couture 3.

Manet’s familiarity with the Spanish and Italian Old Masters is reflected in his near-parodies. Consider Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe , echoing the clothed and unclothed grouping outdoors in Titian’s Pastoral Concert . Consider also Manet’s painting Olympia , mimicking the nude pose of Titian’s Venus of Urbana. Over his career, his brushwork technique grew bolder and looser, as shown in his last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère , where the background is hazily and indistinctly indicated with broader brushstrokes.

However, both these classically prepared artists rebelled against the academic art establishment and the hypocrisies of the social class structure. By their selection of topics and their treatment of them, they delightedly flouted conventional wisdom about art and class. However, their style and technique remained firmly representational and figurative.

Courbet, for his part, eschewed expected subjects, which included elite portraits4, history, and moral lessons5. Instead Courbet painted his actual rough-hewn fellow villagers of Ornans. The Burial at Ornans , for example, displays his family and neighbors on an unprecedented scale, and with respectful care . Viewers in 1849 associated such adulatory treatment with heroic battle scenes6.

Unlike his predecessors, Courbet also portrayed day-to-day activities. He effectively documented the harsh living/working conditions still prevalent in Europe, despite the despite the overthrow of the ancien regime7.

For example, he unapologetically portrayed the brutality of hard labor in his 1849 painting Les Casseurs de Pierres . This was only a year after the Revolution of 18488. Courbet’s glorification of the working classes and their challenging conditions, must have reminded many viewers about the triggers of that unrest .

He skewered the moral norms of the time, as well, in paintings such as Les Demoiselles des Bords de la Seine (Été) . His demoiselles, resting after a tryst, are not socialites, but demi-mondaines 9. He portrayed them in a classical-looking setting and pose10. This juxtaposition critiqued prevailing stuffy moral standards . Today’s viewer barely notices their undress. At the time, portraying recent fornication was an outrage, which Courbet doubtless anticipated.

In this, he represented the overall movement of Modernity characterized by Baudelaire . This movement of the mid-1800s emphasized the current rather than the past, the democratic rather than the elite, things that are provable rather than things accepted on faith, among other items .

After rejection by the academic authorities, Courbet set up his own exhibit pavilion, with his own Realist Manifesto. He wrote, “To know in order to be capable; that was my idea.” 11. This meant, presumably that he wanted to acquire enough skills to fool the eye into believing that a 2D image is 3D, as in The Source .

He goes on to detail his intention to, “translate my …epoch…to create living art” . He accomplished this by dignifying the lives of fellow villagers and city dwellers with the scrupulously detailed and highly finished techniques of academic art. He felt that his”mission was the pursuit of truth, which would help erase social contradictions and imbalances”12.

He thereby satirized the Academy, and revealed social injustice. Although he was later associated with the Commune, an early Socialist organization, he asserted, “when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.’”13.

Edouard Manet was also iconoclastic, although less explicitly political. Manet achieved a change in the goal for painting. Although he is quoted as asserting, “no intention of overthrowing old methods of painting, or creating new ones.” by the end of his life, he was moving towards the techniques viewers associate with Impressionism . He felt that art’s goal was; “to paint what you see”14. He seems to have moved, perhaps unintentionally, from painting with the centuries-old goal of representation, and edifying morally, to the portrayal of colors and shading as viewed in natural light, using contemporary subjects and settings.

Manet also chose subjects and treatments that flouted expectations. For example, The Dead Christ with Angels, although a relatively familiar pose from the Renaissance onward, showed a coarse, shows a ham-handed carpenter of a man, rather than an ethereal pretty boy . His painting A Bar at the Folies Bergere captures almost a snapshot of the life of an ordinary girl; neither deity nor duchess .

His Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe quotes from a painting by Titian, but places the figures in contemporary times. He also used dramatic lighting in a way that he may have felt was more natural than what would appear in a purely studio-based painting.

His Olympia not only arranges a prostitute in a goddess-like pose, which shocked viewers, but offended by appearing incomplete. His detractors characterized as childish his suggestion of some details by broader-brushed shapes rather than tiny indistinguishable strokes. It is the case that the nude’s hands lack detail, and her face is reminiscent of a Mesopotamian idol. This is probably deliberate because her servant’s face competently reveals great individuality and liveliness.

His work was refused, as well, and he exhibited independently, like Courbet. He exhibited with what has come to be known as the first Impressionist exhibition, which truly launched this new trend in art. Today, his work seems inevitable, both in his focus on the ordinary moments in ordinary lives, and in his suggestive brushwork.

Whatever their differences in goal and emphasis, both Courbet and Manet were at the forefront of the movement in art towards, “portraying life as it actually is rather than representing and idealizing the past” .

Both reflected the trends and pressures surrounding them at the time. Socialism, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, and population growth, all affected them, and informed their choices. Even the introduction of photography and the increased mobility arising from the spread of railways seems to have affected their art .

Though their art was individual, they both followed Courbet’s dictum: “painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things”15. They showed the world around them; their reality . This was their contribution to Modernity – to launch Realism and pave the way to Impressionism.

Reference List

. 2013. Web.

Courbet, G., (1849), Les Casseurs de Pierres. Web.

Courbet, G., (1849), The Burial at Ornans. Web.

Courbet, G., (1862), The Source. Web.

– Mary G. Morton, Charlotte Nalle Eyerman – Google Books. 2013. Courbet And the Modern Landscape – Mary G. Morton, Charlotte Nalle Eyerman – Google Books. Web.

Courbet, G., (1853), Les Demoiselles des Bords de la Seine. Web.

Courbet, G., (1847), L. Web.

David, Jacques-Louis, (1793), The Death of Marat. Web.

Delant, G. 2010, “Modernity”, in Ritzer, G.; Ryan, J. eds., T. Web.

Fischer, K. 2013. Courbet, Manet and Modernity. Web.

Godefroide, M. E., (1810), The Sons of Marshall Ney. Web.

GustaveCourbet.org. 2013. Gustave Courbet: The Complete Works. Web.

J. Paul Getty Museum. 2013. . Web.

Manet, E., (1863), . Web.

Manet, E., (1863), . Web.

Manet, E., (1864), The Dead Christ with Angels. Web.

Manet, E., (1881), . Web.

Metropolitan Museum. 2013. . Web..

Metropolitan Museum. 2013. Ornans: The Emergence of Realism. Web.

Musee D’Orsay. 2013. Edouard Manet: Dejeuner Sur L”Herbe. Web.

Musee D’Orsay. 2013. Edouard Manet: Biography. Web.

Musee D’Orsay. 2013. Manet; The Man Who Invented Modernity. Web.

National Gallery of Art: UK. 2013. . Web.

Philosopedia. 2013. Gustave Courbet. Web.

Rabinow, R… 2013. . Web.

Reithel, A., (1847), . Web.

PBS. 2000. The Shock of the Nude. Web.

Titian, (1510), Pastoral Concert (“Concert Champêtre”). Web.

Titian, (1538Online), Venus of Urbino. Web.


1 Baudelaire is quoted by Delant .

2 David chronicled the famous with utmost formality, classicism, and meticulousness, as for example, in The Death of Marat .

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4 For example, the Sons of Marshall Ney

5 As an example of the kind of subject that viewers expected in the mid-1800s, consider Thomas Couture’s Romans de la Decadence, noted above. This portrays in voyeuristic and luscious detail the degeneration of the Romans, once so hardy, upright, and moral, into self-indulgence and sexual amorality. The presence in the composition of cheerful naked ladies could be justified, in that era of public modesty and prudery, by the fact that the artist is depicting ancient people, doing something that the viewer can feel superior to and disapprove of heartily.

6 An example would be The Battle of Cordoba by Alfred Reithel .

7 The late 1700s saw a decade of violent disempowerment of aristocrats and royalty, inspired to some extent by the successful anti-monarchical struggle of the British colonies in America.

8 This outbreak of social unrest was duplicated all over Europe. In France, it was triggered by discontent with the uneven and disruptive cycles of economic setback that accompanied industrialization, agricultural failures leading to mass hunger, and persistent lack of enfranchisement for many in the population, among many other causes. Some workers responded by Luddite destruction of new machines that were perceived as endangering job security, or by xenophobic attacks against foreign workers from Belgium. This was the period of the beginning of the Socialist movement, and union activism. On the part of the government, there were experiments in government intervention which were variously successful .

9 Even if they did not receive money for their sexual favors, and therefore might not be officially prostitutes, they were not considered respectable at all.

10 An earlier artist might have used this rustic bower to showcase Cupid awoken by Psyche, or Susannah spied on by the elders, or some similar myth or Bible story, and that was exactly Courbet’s point.

11 His Realistic Manifesto is quoted by Morton and Eyerman ,

12 This quoted by the Courbet website .

13 This is quoted in Philosopedia .

14 This is quoted in the exhibition notes of the J. Paul Getty Museum

15 As quoted in exhibition notes from the Metropolitan Museum

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