Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gustave Courbet - A Burial at Ornans.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850, approx. 10 1/2 x 22
A Burial at Ornans is a wonderful painting loaded with so many elements to make a statement and disturb the acceptable norms of mid 19th century France.  This painting was painted during a time when Courbet was living in Ornans where he painted his breakthrough pictures about the peasants and life in the country. (The Stonebreakers; A Burial at Ornans; Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair)   He was painting his experience in the countryside for submission into the official Salon, to be viewed by a city audience...  At this time there was an acceptable way Parisians wanted to see the countryside to fit in with their beliefs.  They expected to view a place of order, paintings of man in harmony with nature and representations of Catholic piety, a.k.a. people praying. 

One of the things that disturbed the critics the most was the fact that Courbet painted this enormous painting with the motifs and crowds of historical paintings about an insignificant subject, an unknown peasant's burial.  When looking at a painting of this size they expected to see a highly idealized, grand narrative. Instead Courbet gave them an everyday event, a group of peasants in black, standing around before a newly dug up grave prior to the burial. This was considered radical because instead of choosing the culminating moment of the actual ceremony, Courbet chose to focus on the moment before it took place, in turn making the viewer feel a part of it. 

Another problematic social issue was the concept of the burial ground.  At this time peasants didn't have formal burial grounds like this and people reacted to the idea of them deserving one. There is a figure in the foreground wearing teal, he would be the veteran of revolution of 1793 which is also problematic for middle and upper-middle classes because of his peasant and revolutionary associations and they also wouldn't want to acknowledge that peasants were key figures in the revolution.

In classical art, where everything was staged and balanced, viewers would know where to look since everything would be pointing to it. In this painting, however, there is a lot of confusion, dynamism and realism. This is how a real procession would look with everyone coming up, gathering around slowly and focusing on different directions. There is a circular crowd standing close together up front of the picture plane that Courbet snakes and makes harder to read.   

The issue of attention, who is looking at what, in which direction is very important. T.J. Clark terms this collective distraction when everyone is not focused on one point, they are all looking at different directions.

It is actually a very still painting, a serene scene with a mass of sombre bodies that is very hard to decipher from one another.  We can't really tell where one person ends and another begins with everyone in black.  He is shifting our attention off center with the use of the color white dispersed throughout the painting, in a sea of black. There are also two figures in red in the middle of the composition that catch your eye whose bodies seem to merge into one another with two heads looking at opposite directions.

A cross can be seen above the heads of the mourners and religious officials.  The figure of the Christ on a staff is being held by a gentleman with white gloves but it almost looks like a separate entity, up on the hilltop. Since this is a religious ceremony, religion has an importance here but at the same time, Courbet is undermining church authority. The figures in red are beadles, officials of the church, who assisted at religious functions, and upon closer inspection, they seem to have bulbous noses and red cheeks attesting to their state of drunkenness.  It would be very offensive to city viewers to see church officials not idealized but as they were. 

This isn't based on his actual experience but probably might be his uncle's burial in Ornans.  He was also going against what the other contemporary artists like Couture was doing and painting people in contemporary clothes.  The people who posed for him were people he knew from the town who attended the actual funeral. Two of the women are his mother and sister, his friend Bouchon, and maybe his grandfather,who was already dead.  He was not painting outside, en plein air, he had them pose for him in his studio. 

This was Courbet's first monumental painting he made in 1848 but didn't get to exhibit until1851.  It was received with mixed reviews but eventually as Courbet so aptly stated "The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism." 


  1. The size of the grave makes it obvious that this thr burial of a child

  2. thanks i used it anyways to cheat in my projects


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