Gustave Courbet and Eduoard Manet

Subject: Culture
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Contribution to the Rise of Modernism

Born in 1819 and growing up in the Franche‐Comté region of South Western France, Gustave Courbet has, over the years, come to be known as one of the pioneers of modernism in Art. Judging by his various radical but all the same, genius, masterpieces, one can indeed deduce the fact that Courbet employed the use of post-Romantic style (Chu, 1977). Some of these works of art include the “Burial at Ornans”, the “Peasants of Flagey”, and the “Stonebreakers.” Many experts claim that it was through his works that the previously shunned concept of Realism was finally incorporated into Artistic philosophy.

The “Stonebreakers”, for instance, places further assertion on his inclination towards realism (Chu, 1977). The painting of an aged stonebreaker, hard at work together with his much younger colleague, is a realistic depiction of the misery that the poor have to endure each day in order to get by. The young lad, who is struggling with a basket full of stones, seems to be rather frail, and is clad in worn-out clothes; the part of his shirt that’s on the small of his back is completely shredded. His colleague, on the other hand, is wearing a hat, possibly to shield himself from the sun. He appears to hold his hammer in a steady but tired grip; which is likely the result of the combined effects of experience and old age. These two are embodiments of the extremes of age, and they serve to show that one cannot be spared life’s travails, however old or young one might be (Chu, 1977).

Born in 1833, Edouard Manet is described by Emile Zola as being part of a rare breed of artists who possess a penchant for straying from the socially acceptable and long-standing principles that had long defined Art (Zola, 1867). Manet is described as a rebel, owing to the fact that he refrains from abiding by the teachings he was subjected to during his years of tutelage. He interprets nature in his own unique and original style, considering his paintings are somewhat lightly toned, pale and incandescent (Zola, 1867). His masterpieces are also pegged upon simplicity in the use of colour, as well as elegance in their depiction (and confrontation) of human nature.

The painting, “Olympia”, acts as a fine example of his rather underrated genius. When one initially catches a general glimpse of the painting, the main entities in the painting appear as just masses of contrasting colours, “a large pale mass against a black background” as Emile Zoda as described them (Zola, 1867). A keener observation from slightly farther away, however, brings out the immense charm, simplicity and detail that Manet has put into Olympia, the Negress, and the bouquet of flowers. This picture, nevertheless receives harsh criticism from critiques whose narrow-minded opinions are mostly bound by the ways of old, which called for a particular level of decency and nudity in paintings. Few, however, applaud Manet’s radical approach. They include Emile Zoda, together with other like-minded individuals.

Similarities between Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet

In accordance with the findings obtained from our analysis of their works, one can conclude that the two artists’ approach to art was primarily bound by one major concept, realism. Also of importance to note is the fact the two also shunned the use of romanticism in their paintings, preferring to democratize art via the representation of subjects acquired from the everyday lives of the proletariat, that is, the working class. This, they would achieve, through direct scrutiny of the modern society. As a result, many accused them of deviating from the revered teaching of academic art which revolved around classicism. Like Manet, Gustave employs the use of simplicity in his artworks, which also seemed to traverse the “Class divide” which plagued the French society at that time.

Both of them also seemed generally unaffected by the constantly negative remarks from critics as well as the occasional rejection of their artworks by renowned salons in Paris. They were determined to triumph in their quest to represent the modern world in a realistic, original and uncorrupted manner. However, their reactions to these setbacks varied to some extent. For instance, Courbet withdrew eleven of his paintings from the Exposition Universelle in Paris after two others were rejected. Manet, on the other hand, constructed his own pavilion in close proximity to the Exposition Universelle where he displayed around fifty of his works (Courthion & Cailler, 1960). Modern critics hold the two in high regard and consider them to be the fathers of modern art.

Differences in their Contribution to Modern Art

Despite the similar qualities that their artworks share, there also exist several, albeit minor, differences in their specific contributions to modernism in art.  Courbet, for instance, primarily used his paintings as a sociopolitical tool that advocated for the removal of classicism, i.e., segregation based on one’s socioeconomic class. This is clearly seen in his painting, “Young Women from the Village”, which attempts to challenge long-held beliefs regarding relations between individuals from distinct socioeconomic classes. Reports from learned quarters also seem to suggest that Courbet sourced his views from the likes of Pierre Proudhon and Karl Marx, both of whom lobbied for the elevation of the working class (Harrison & Wood, 1992).

Manet, on the other hand, succeeds at introducing to this noble field, the elements of simplicity, charm and elegance (Courthion & Cailler, 1960). His adoration of bold and vibrant colour has also been adopted by many. However, his attempts at using his art to make political statements regarding the socioeconomic divide are minimal, if any. In his three-part essay, Emile Zola describes Manet as one who lives and loves the Bourgeoisie way of life. One can say that his contribution to modernism was purely that of the aesthetic variety while that of Courbet was, in a way, a combination of artistic genius as well as political activism (Harrison & Wood, 1992).

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  1. Chu, P. T. D. (1977). Courbet in perpective. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  2. Courthion, P., & Cailler, P. (1960). Portrait of Manet by himself and his contemporaries. London: Cassell, 113-139.
  3. Harrison, C., & Wood, P. (Eds.). (1992). Art in theory, 1900-1990: an anthology of changing ideas. Vol. 3. Oxford, UK & Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 1992.
  4. Zola, E. (1867). A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet. Revue du dix-neuvieme Siecle, 1.
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