A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

In an earlier blog (November 14th) I looked at the life of Courbet and his painting The Artist’s Studio.  If you have just arrived at today’s blog it would be worth going to the earlier one to read about Courbet’s life and his artistic principles I mentioned in that earlier blog that when he had tried to get his three large painting into the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855 they were rejected because of their size.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today entitled A Burial at Ornans was one of the three.  This work was even bigger than the The Artist’s Studio, and measures 3.1metres by 6.6 metres and was completed by Courbet in 1850.  Both paintings are housed at the Musée d’Orsay.

Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans in 1819 and this huge painting depicts the funeral of his great uncle at the town in September 1848.   The depiction of the funeral and the laying to rest of the dead is unlike the usual way it would have been portrayed in Romantic or Academic art, where we would expect to see angels of the Lord carrying the soul of the deceased heavenwards.  Gustave Courbet was a realist painter.  In fact he was in the forefront of the Realism art movement, which was a grouping of artists  who believed that they should represent the world as it is even if that meant breaking with artistic and social conventions.  Realist artists painted everyday characters and situations all in a true-to-life manner.  These artists wanted to rid art of the theatrical drama, lofty subjects and the classical style and in its place they wanted to depict more everyday commonplace themes.  Courbet was once asked to incorporate angels in a painting he was doing of a church.  He rejected the request saying:

“….I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one… “

The Innocent gaze

This realist art we see before us is exactly as Courbet would want.  It is a funeral scene, warts and all.  It is an unflattering yet dignified scene, but more importantly to Courbet, it is a realistic scene.  There is a stillness and serenity of what we see before us.  There is no attempt to glorify the setting with a grandiloquent and ostentatious depiction of descending angels with God seated on a throne in the clouds above.  In the foreground there is an open grave awaiting the coffin.  The funeral procession approaches from the left.  In the procession we see the pallbearers slowly following the priest and altar boys as they close in on the gaping hole in the ground and the gravedigger, who is on bended knee by the grave.  The figures in red are officials of the church, who assisted at religious functions.  If you look closely at the edge of the grave, you can just make out a skull which presumably was exhumed when the grave was dug out.  The mourners fill the middle ground of the painting.  Grief-stricken women, with handkerchiefs fending off their tears, circle the grave.  It is interesting to note that Courbet did not use models for this scene, which would have been the norm in historical narrative paintings.  Instead he used actual villagers who were at the ceremony, including his sister and mother, and this again highlights his desire for realism.  This is not an en plein air painting for the depiction of the people was done in his studio at Ornans.  Look how Courbet has depicted the young at this event. 

Girl peeking at grave

See how the young altar boy, who is standing behind the priest, stares up at one of the pallbearer.  Courbet has managed to perfectly capture the look of innocence in the boy’s face.  Cast your eyes to the right foreground of the painting and see if you can spot the face of a small girl who is peeking out at the grave.  We just see her face.  The rest of her is almost lost amongst a sea of black clothing.  Look at the way Courbet has kept the heads of the mourners and officials level with the tops of the cliffs and the land in the background.  Observe how only the crucifix reaches reaches above that level into the pale sky, as it is held aloft by an attendant.   Just a coincident or has a little piece symbolism crept into Courbet’s work?

In Sarah Faunce’s biography of Courbet she talked about the reception this painting received from the public and critics.  She wrote:

“….In Paris the Burial was judged as a work that had thrust itself into the grand tradition of history painting, like an upstart in dirty boots crashing a genteel party, and in terms of that tradition it was of course found wanting…”

The critics seemed to miss the histrionics and exaggerated gestures of grief they had been used to seeing depicted in great historical funeral paintings of the past.  They thought this painting was ugly and presumably missed the beauty of angels, puti and the presence of the figure of God sitting aloft awaiting a new entrant to his kingdom.   Another aspect of the painting which disturbed the critics was the fact that Courbet painted this huge work, similar in size to grand historical paintings of the past, centred, in their opinion,  on a subject of little consequence – a burial of a family member.  As far as the sophisticated Parisians were concerned paintings of  rural folk should be confined to small works of art and they were very critical of Courbet’s decision to afford these folk such a large space of canvas.  The fact that he did was looked upon as a radical act.  However Courbet said of the painting “it was the debut of my principles”.   For the critics, if an artist was going to paint such an enormous work, then they expected the subject to be an idealized grand narrative and not just an ordinary every day event.

I end today with two quotes from the artist on his artistic upbringing and his pursuit of Realism and what he tried to achieve.

“…I have studied, apart from any preconceived system and without biases, the art of the ancients and the moderns. I have no more wished to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor was it my intention, moreover, to attain the useless goal of art for art’s sake. No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent understanding of my own individuality…”

“…To know in order to be capable, that was my idea. To be able to translate the customs, idea, the appearances of my epoch according to my own appreciation of it [to be not only a painter but a man,] in a word to create living art, that is my goal…”

And finally his hope for how he would be remembered…………….

“…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…”

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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