Courbet, realist painter of society

Courbet, realist painter of society

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Title: The Painter's Workshop. Real allegory.

Author : COURBET Gustave (1819 - 1877)

Creation date : 1855

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 361 - Width 598

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 96DE10159 / RE 2257

The Painter's Workshop. Real allegory.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: November 2007


Courbet, realist painter of society


Historical context

"It's the world that comes to my house to be painted"

In 1854 or 1855, Gustave Courbet painted a large picture of 6 meters by 3 meters, The Painter's Workshop. The majority of the public made it relatively straightforward to read.

In the middle of the canvas, appearing in a proud pose, the artist drew back from the easel to judge his sketch; at some distance posed a model (was it a figure intended to enliven the landscape; beside Courbet stood a little peasant, admiring; a woman of the world, giving her husband her arm, was visiting the studio; poets, musicians and lovers were chatting; to the left of the painter elbowed each other, still in the eyes of a secular public but already accustomed to social typologies (the Physiology, The French painted by themselves were very successful), a beggar, a Jew, a common woman, an undertaker, a fairground Hercules, a poacher ... Such was this astonishing painting, of which Courbet himself had said in a letter to Champfleury: “You will understand as best you can. Why this difficulty? It is essentially due to two things: on the one hand, the painting takes on a whole new dimension as soon as we perceive in it not so much types as portraits; on the other hand, The Workshop has a singular subtitle - Allegory real determining a phase of seven years of my artistic life -, mixing two apparently contradictory terms: Allegory / Reality. "

What then is this "image"?

Image Analysis

"It's my way of seeing society in its interests and passions"

The painter has brought together in his studio the world in which he moves, not only social types, but identifiable men behind a "political disguise" made necessary by the prohibition on painting political subjects. Hélène Toussaint identified these characters, sometimes without certainty.

To the left of the artist, the men who in Courbet's eyes "live by death": exploiters and exploited. Among them, a banker (Achille Fould, Minister of Finance of Napoleon III?), A parish priest (Louis Veuillot, journalist, director of The universe ?), a republican of 1793, very miserable (Lazare Carnot?), an undertaker (Emile de Girardin, founder of popular newspapers, considered to be “gravedigger of the Republic” for having supported Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851?), a clothes merchant (Persigny, Minister of the Interior of Napoleon III, as a "traveling salesman" of Napoleonic ideas published by the prince in 1839?) and then a poacher who looks like Napoleon III, a hunter, a mower perhaps symbolizing nations struggling for their independence (Italy, Hungary, Poland), a worker, representative of the working world , a Chinese… We can still play the game of identification, but these figures remain allegorical.

To the artist's right, those who, always according to Courbet, "live life": no longer allegories, but more easily identifiable individuals. We can distinguish Baudelaire reading, Champfleury, the art critic who supported realism (also seated), the Sabatier couple, Montpellier collectors and militant Fourierists, the writer Max Buchon, Proudhon, of whom Courbet is the disciple, Bruyas, the patron of Montpellier, as well as friends, supporters of the artist, like his sister Juliette.
In the center, the painter, his model and the scattered memories of his past. We have here a sort of Last Judgment: the condemned on the one hand, the elected officials on the other, who would be separated by a “new religion”, that of the artist or of art, a “religion” common to utopian socialists, to the romantics, as well as to Proudhon, friend and confidant of the painter. Courbet defined himself as a republican "by birth", having followed in 1840 "the socialists of all sects", on condition that they defend a "humanitarian socialism".


First, an aesthetic manifesto.

This painting has caused a lot of ink to flow. The political implications are obvious there since appear on the web at the same time Napoleon III and Proudhon. It is a painting of History, in the sense that, unlike genre painting (still life, landscape, scene of ordinary life), the subject, treated in a majestic, imposing format, celebrates a major event, or considered as such by the artist: his painting of society, his idea of ​​the artist's (central) place in this society, his aesthetic manifesto. Courbet in fact exposes here the result, the results of his work. For him, it is finished with academicism as the pillory-nailed workshop mannequin suggests, with his youthful works, the scattered pieces of which lie at the feet of the poacher; remain Nature (he paints a landscape of Ornans, recognizable by its cliffs, already present in The Burial at Ornans), the real, and the place assigned to the artist at the heart of society. This balance sheet is a manifesto.

  • allegory
  • Napoleon iii
  • naturalism
  • painters
  • realism
  • Second Empire
  • Proudhon (Pierre-Joseph)
  • Veuillot (Louis)
  • Carnot (Lazare)
  • Girardin (Emile de)
  • republicanism
  • Fould (Achilles)
  • Persigny (Duke Victor of)
  • Utopia
  • socialism
  • Baudelaire (Charles)
  • Champfleury


Pierre GEORGEL Gustave Courbet, The poem of nature Paris, RMN-Découvertes Gallimard, 1995. Youssef ISHAGHPOUR "Courbet, the portrait of the painter in his studio" 48/14 , n ° 4, spring 1997, p. 55-63.Hélène TOUSSAINT "The dossier of Courbet's" Atelier "", Exposition Gustave CourbetParis, RMN, 1977, p. 241-277.

To cite this article

Chantal GEORGEL, "Courbet, realistic painter of society"

Video: Gustave Courbets Painting Technique