Friday, December 19, 2014

A Burial at Ornans (1850)

Gustave Courbet: A Burial at Ornans

This painting is considered one of the major turning points of 19th-century French art. The painting records the funeral in September 1848 of his great-uncle in the painter's birthplace, the small town of Ornans. It treats an ordinary provincial funeral with unflattering realism, and on the giant scale traditionally reserved for the heroic or religious scenes of history painting. Its exhibition at the 1850–51 Paris Salon created an "explosive reaction" and brought Courbet instant fame. 

People who had attended the funeral were used as models for the painting. Previously, models had been used as actors in historical narratives; here Courbet said that he "painted the very people who had been present at the interment, all the townspeople". The result is a realistic presentation of them, and of life, in Ornans. [Wikipedia]

A sampling of some of the "explosive reaction" at the Salon: With few exceptions, viewers reacted to the work as an assault on the very idea of what a painting should be. To sophisticated Parisians, rural folk were considered proper fodder for small genre pieces; it's unprecedented to accord them the magisterial scope of the historical masterpieces of French tradition. With the worker uprisings of 1848 a recent memory, Courbet's use of the common people as a grand subject is deemed a radical act -- "the engine of revolution," as one critic said. Furthermore, in his push towards a realistic style, Courbet intentionally painted his black-clad folk in a manner that did not idealize their suffering. The Salon audience is accustomed to paintings that poeticize and uplift, and they read Courbet's grieving figures as vulgar and ugly. One critic wrote, "He paints pictures as you black your boots." [Culture Shock]

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