How a Painting of a Funeral Shaped the History of Art
The 19th century gave way to some of the most important artistic movements in history and gifted us with some of the most recognizable names in art: Monet, Degas, Cezanne, and Van Gogh. A name that might be less familiar to you and others is Gustave Courbet. His famous painting titled, “A Burial at Ornans” is incredibly important to art historians.
So why is this funeral scene so important?
Prior to 1851, Courbet was relatively unknown. That all changed when he exhibited this 22-foot-long painting at the government-sponsored Paris Salon, the most highly prestigious international art exhibition at that time. Courbet’s painting depicted a scene of rural life in a way that was very new and controversial. At the time, such a grand scale and careful attention to detail was exclusively reserved for showcasing “important” people; royals, aristocrats, and war heroes. But here was a simple and somber scene of middle-class citizens at a gravesite. It was true to life and contained no exaggerated spiritual connotations or romanticizing of death. He steered clear of symbolism and metaphor in favor of showing the reality of death. Instead of idealizing the people’s suffering, he showed the realness of grief. Believe it or not, this was a radical concept at the time. Realism was, to most audiences, even thought of as grotesque. Many viewers reacted as if Courbet’s work was an attack on art itself. They were offended that he represented rural, ordinary folk in a way that was traditionally reserved for those with much higher status and power. He seemed to portray the poor and suffering as if they had noble importance.
Courbet called this exhibition the “debut of my principles” and it solidified him as the leader of the Realist Movement in Paris. The support he gave, and the attention he paid, to the poor and oppressed was not accepted very well by the government, but he was determined to achieve artistic independence from the Salon-controlled academic style of art. Courbet was a huge inspiration to other artists, revolutionizing Western Art in many ways and paving the way for other modern movements like Impressionism. Shortly after his death in 1877, Courbet’s sister donated “A Burial at Ornans” to the French Ministry of Fine Arts, and it can now be viewed at Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Courbet not only changed the course of art history, but he encouraged society to view grief in a new way. It isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s simply a part of the healing process – something that everyone will experience. He, like other artists, musicians, and writers, used his platform to show us the reality of loss and the ways we can help one another recover.