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May 2007

Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet's Jo, La Belle Irlandaise

Arch Facial Plast Surg. 2007;9(3):224-225. doi:10.1001/archfaci.9.3.224

As one of the leading painters of the French Realist style, Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) had an uncompromising vision of modern life that challenged established conventions of the artistic subject. Courbet was born in the small rural town of Ornans, France, in the region of Franche-Comté. The rugged scenery of his native country remained an important place in his artistic imagination and served as the backdrop for some of his most important compositions. Courbet began his artistic career in 1831; he worked in a variety of artistic studios and private academies in Ornans and later in Paris. Inspired by the Dutch paintings he encountered in Parisian collections, Courbet traveled to the Netherlands in 1846 and assimilated the broad painterly manner of Rembrandt and Hals, incorporating their liberal application of paint and use of the palette knife to produce dramatic chiaroscuro effects in his own works. Courbet was impressed by the subject matter of the 17th century Dutch realists who elevated the domestic genre scene, contemporary portrait, and still life as significant and even heroic artistic subjects. Their example confirmed Courbet's opposition to the art of the previous generation of French Romantics who favored epic confrontations between man and the forces of nature or heroic narratives. Two of Courbet's early paintings from 1849, the Stone Breakers (formerly Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany; destroyed in 1945) and A Burial at Ornans (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), constitute a visual manifesto of the Realist ideal that truth in art is only what can be seen and known. The Stone Breakers depicts 2 impoverished peasant laborers dressed in tattered clothes breaking stones in a dreary landscape. The old man and his young companion avert their faces from the viewer's gaze, underscoring their isolation and political anonymity. In traditional paintings, such figures were relegated to the background, whereas Courbet's monumental figures occupy the foreground. Their social insignificance contrasts sharply with their prominent position within the composition. When Courbet exhibited the painting at the Paris Salon of 1851, it raised a public outcry and critics accused the artist of socialist sympathies, a claim he made no attempt to deny.Article