"By its essence, realism is democratic art."
Courbet, 'Le Précurseur d'Anvers' (August 22, 1861), reprinted in Le Courrier du Dimanche (September 1, 1861), cited in Valerie Bajou, Courbet (Paris, 2003), p. 218, n. 94.
In his art and writings, Courbet created and promoted Realism as an art for his own times. He depicted ordinary working people with an importance traditionally reserved for French history painting. Courbet rejected established ideas about art, as well as institutional and State interference in art. To modern artists, he himself represented the heroically independent artist
Courbet's childhood, in a prosperous farming family at Ornans, Franche-Comté (near Switzerland), underlay his regionalism and commitment to painting rural people. Courbet studied art with former pupils of Antoine-Jean Gros and Jacques-Louis David, at Ornans and Besançon. In 1839 he moved to Paris. After training briefly with Charles de Steuben, Courbet rejected the École des Beaux-Arts for the private art academies of Père Suisse and Père Lapin. He copied older art at the Louvre. In 1846-47 Courbet visited Holland and Belgium, where he was influenced by the art of Rembrandt and Hals. In the 1850s, his 'modern history pictures' enjoyed the protection of Charles, Duc de Morny. Courbet's art and writings on 'Realism' (derived from his friend Champfleury) have influenced modern art.
Courbet addressed contemporary social issues in his paintings. He painted many self-portraits, and depicted himself at the centre of a large, multi-figured painting he exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1851. In the 1850s, his paintings, though intended for the Salon and for the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, challenged the aesthetics and social mores of his time. In the 1860s he produced less controversial portraits, still lifes, and landscapes (The Cliffs at Étretat, Normandy, 1866). He returned to 'socialist' art in 1868. Serving under the 1871 Commune as president of a commission protecting monuments, Courbet saved the Louvre. At the Commune's defeat, he was jailed for the demolition of the Vendôme Column and ordered to pay for its re-erection. Courbet painted still lifes in jail, reworking them on release (Still-life, 1871). In exile in Switzerland from 1873, he produced a few atmospheric landscapes (Snow in the Woods, c.1875), while selling art produced by assistants to clear his debt.