The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (1849)

For my third look at Realism art and Social Realism art I am going back to the land of its inception, France.   The emergence of this form of art came about in France around 1848, the year King Louis-Philippe lost the French crown and was replaced by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who became President of the French Second Republic.  The monarchy had gone, even if it was just for a few years, as Louis-Napoleon had himself crowned Napoleon III.  With the change of ruler came the promise of greater democracy. The French people were excited with the change and were now baying for this pledged greater democracy under the new regime.  Realism in art also arrived with the Realist artists who democratised their art by depicting in their paintings subjects from everyday lives of the working class.   These painters rejected what had gone before them.  They neither wanted to paint idealized pictures, which had no bearing on reality but was what was being taught and expected from the students at the École des Beaux-Arts, the state-sponsored art academy and exhibited at the official Salons, nor did they want to carry on with the exotic themes of Romanticism.

For these Realist artists, they wanted their paintings to be a direct reflection on modern life.  The great French painter and leading proponent of Realism art, Gustave Courbet, described what art should be, saying:

 

“…painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things..,”

Gustave Courbet is my featured artist today and I wanted to look at his painting The Stonebreakers.  Sadly it no longer exists as it was destroyed by Allied bombing on a transport convoy in February 1945, whilst it was being transported to the Königstein Castle, near Dresden, for safe keeping along with 154 other paintings.   When The Stonebreakers was exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1850, it was attacked as un-artistic, crude, and socialistic, so let us look at why this view was taken by the critics.

Courbet wanted to depict the lifestyle of working class people in his paintings.  However, he wanted to depart from the idealized depiction of these poor farm workers and peasants who in the past had always been depicted smiling happily as they got on with the most arduous and often dangerous jobs, for little remuneration.   The problem of course with this artistic style was although it appealed to people who sympathised with the lot of the working class, the buyers of art were often the rich and upper classes, who through association were the very people who treated their workers badly.   His Realism art works were looked upon as being anti-authoritarian and politically threatening.  When he put forward two of his large paintings A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio for inclusion in the 1855 Salon, the Salon jurists rejected them. Courbet was so angered by the jurists’ decision that he withdrew his eleven accepted submissions and displayed the paintings privately in his Pavillon du Réalisme, not far from the official international exhibition.   In his exhibition catalogue, which described his works, he wrote an introduction which, in essence, was a Realist manifesto.  He stated:

“…his goal as an artist was to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation…”

The realist paintings of Courbet found no favour with the Establishment.  Courbet’s critics firmly believed that he was bringing about an artistic and moral decline by painting what they deemed distasteful and inconsequential subjects on a grand scale. They accused him of nurturing a “cult of ugliness” against much beloved concepts of Beauty and the Ideal.   His critics even went as far as to state that this Realism was nothing less than the enemy of art.  However there were some high placed supporters of Courbet’s work.  The French socialist politician at the time, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an advocate of workers’ associations and co-operatives as well as individual worker / peasant possession over private ownership or the nationalization of land and workplaces, saw The Stonebreakers painting and commented:

“… The Stonebreakers was an irony directed against our industrialized civilization … which is incapable of freeing man from the heaviest, most difficult, most unpleasant tasks, the eternal lot of the poor...”
The Stonebreakers was painted by Gustave Courbet in 1849 and shows two peasants breaking rocks into gravel to be used as a base in the construction of roads. One appears to be in his sixties and the other much younger.  The painting could not be described as colourful.  Courbet has used monotonous colours and by doing so has reflected the languishing tone of the painting.  We are not distracted by a colourful landscape.  Our eyes are fixed upon the two men as they carry on with their backbreaking work.    In no way was Courbet’s depiction of the men idealized or romanticized.  What we see is the gritty uncompromising truth.  The job of a stonebreaker was considered the lot of the lowest in French society.   Their differing ages symbolizes the circle of poverty, which will haunt the lower classes throughout their lives.  Those born into poverty would remain so for the rest of their life.   It is a glimpse into the world of the rural unskilled labourer.   The workers are dressed in ragged clothes.  Their ragged clothes and the little meal laid out in the right midground of the work underline their impoverishment. Look how Courbet has depicted the boy as he struggles with the heavy basket of gravel.  It is almost beyond the boy’s strength while the old man exhaustedly bends his knee to work.   One is now too old and almost lacks the strength to wield the hammer whilst the other is almost too young and almost lacks the strength to carry his burden.  This is realist art at its finest.  Courbet has not resorted to ancient heroes for his portrayal of heroism he has taken two simple men whose lot in life was manual labour and who were carrying out their task as best they could.

Despite Realist art not being favoured by the bourgeoisie or the Academies, it found an audience in France who was showing an interest in the plight of the working poor especially following the labourers uprising against the bourgeois leaders of the newly established Second Republic in 1848.  Their demands were simple – a redistribution of property and better working conditions.  The labourers’ uprising lasted just three days and many lives were lost. They did not achieve their demands but suddenly the plight of the working class labourer was centre stage and Courbet’s painting which came a year after the failed uprising could not have arrived at a more fortuitous time.

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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.

3 thoughts on “The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet”

  1. One could say the Courbet sets the conditions for the the future work of the Impressionists; in the sense that he approaches reality without preconceived ideas, (although that is arguable, because, as you said, he wants to show us reality with his harshness and contradictions, which is a prejudicial position) and in so doing opens the way to the Impressionist “scientific” research about the process of vision.
    Thank you.
    L.

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