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Monday, December 2, 2019

Courbet's Burial at Ornans

Gustave Courbet's Burial at Ornans now hangs in Paris' Orsay Museum.
Every artist dreams of creating something "important" at least once in his or her lifetime. For Picasso it was his 1937 masterpiece, Guernica. For Norman Rockwell it was his 1943 series, Four Freedoms. In the case of Leonardo it would be his Last Supper. Michelangelo had several such works but the Sistine Chapel ceiling probably had the greatest impact. Late in the summer of 1849 the French Realism painter, Gustave Courbet began his most "important" work. It is a massive 315 x 668 cm (more than 10 feet tall by almost 22 feet in length) group portrait Burial at Ornans. Ornans is a small town in eastern France not far from the Swiss border. Ornans was Courbet's birthplace in 1819. The funeral scene is that of Courbet's Great Uncle, who died in September of 1848. The painting took over a year to complete. Family members included in Courbet's scene are his mother, his three sisters, and his grandfather, Ouidot. Courbet was not the first to paint a funeral scene. El Greco's 1586 Burial of Count Orgaz comes to mind. Nor was he the first to paint Christian rituals. He was, however, the first to mix history painting with genre portraiture and to do so in such a massive, realistic manner.
Burial at Ornans, 1849-50, Gustave Courbet.
Courbet's Ornans studio.
I've seen this painting. Over-whelming doesn't do it justice. Courbet's painting was so large it would barely fit in his Ornans studio. He complained in a letter to a friend about the lack of space in his studio where he painted this, his largest work ever. “Only a madman could work under the conditions I must put up with. I am groping blindly. I have no room to step back.” Unlike other artists of his time, Courbet did not hire models to pose for him. Courbet used the real people who had actually been at the burial. As it had such a deleterious effect on the Romantic style of painting, Courbet himself said: “The Burial at Ornans was, in reality, the burial of Romanticism.”

This preliminary sketch defines the figures and the manner in
which they are grouped in the painting.
Black is the basis of the Burial at Ornans, and two sequences of color are played against it, over the picture's whole length. First the flesh color of the hands and faces; second, the plain white of handkerchiefs and collars, lace caps, spats, the priest's trimmings, the gravedigger's sleeves, and the glossy hide of a dog. At the left of the picture the same colors are put in negative; the black of the crucifix, caps, and belts against the surplices of the choristers, black crossbones and black tears on the pall itself. The dark tones used in Courbet's work also make it exceedingly difficult to photograph as evidenced by the numerous detail images used below. Courbet's preliminary sketch (above), is far closer to the crude straightforwardness and of the kind of intelligence which went into the work: breaking and turning the long line of heads; drawing the black into dense clusters and making the white area a more positive interval in the picture; creating just enough space, between crucifix and censer, or between priest and gravedigger, to make the various groups distinct. Nothing is enlivened. The forms of popular art show through the picture like a skeleton. No device is strong enough to obscure the basic theme, the faces etched in even light against the mass of black below them."

Courbet 's mother and three sisters--Juliette (whose face is covered), Zoé, and Zélie

This is the picture's structure. It is more complex than it seems at first sight, but it can be described step by step, with some kind of certainty. Beyond this point, when we start to ask about the picture's meaning, the real difficulties begin. What, to put it briefly, is the Burial's affective atmosphere? What are the mourners' attitudes and emotions, and what is Courbet's attitude to the event portrayed? We have to answer such questions in our own minds in the face of an image which deliberately avoids emotional organization. In the Burial there is no single focus of attention, no climax towards which the forms and faces turn. Least of all is the picture organized around the sacrament of burial: hardly a single face, save perhaps the gravedigger's, is turned towards the priest, and the line of heads at the right of the picture looks the other way entirely--away from the coffin and the crucifix.

Grandather Ouidot and the pall bearers, Gustave Courbet
We are not inventing this perplexity. Critic after critic, when the Burial reached Paris late in 1850, asked the same questions, though with more rancor. It was precisely this lack of open, declared significance which offended most of all; it was the way the Burial seemed to hide its attitudes, seemed to contain within itself too many contraries--religious and secular, comic and tragic, sentimental and grotesque. It was this inclusiveness, this exact and cruel deadpan, that made the Burial the focus of such different meanings. It was an image that took on the colors of its context; as it was designed to do. 19th-century France had many political and social issues going on that were conflicting the artists working at that time. Realism was the new style that had emerged into the French art world. Gustave Courbet's paintings embodied historic events that were captured in vivid realism. Burial at Ornans made him one of the most famous 19th century artists in France. The harsh realism of this artwork is what offended the bourgeoisie. Many people were offended that an unheard-of-before great-uncle was given such honor and fame to his death through Courbet's painting.

The landscape attendant

At the Salon in 1850-1851, many people decried "the ugliness" of the people, and the ordinariness of the whole scene. Among the few admirers of the painting, one critic prophesied that it would remain "the Herculean pillars of realism in modern history". The very subject of the painting has been reinterpreted. At first regarded as anticlerical, it was finally believed that, in a composition dominated by Christ on the cross (above), bringing together the clergy, a mayor and a Masonic judge, surrounded by men and women from all walks of life, it was the idea of "universal understanding" which prevailed, a constant preoccupation in the 19th century and for the 1848 generation in particular. Courbet's approach was radically innovative at the time: he used a canvas of dimensions usually reserved for history painting, a "noble" genre, to present an ordinary subject, with no trace of idealization, which cannot pretend to be a genre scene either.

 The grave, and M. Cassard, the grave digger.
Félix Nadar's photographic
portrait of Gustave Courbet
As a prime example of Realism, the painting sticks to the facts of a real burial and avoids amplified spiritual connotations. Emphasizing the temporal nature of life, Courbet inten-tionally did not let the light in the painting express the eternal. While the sunset could have expressed the great transition of the soul from the temporal to the eternal, Courbet covered the evening sky with clouds so the passage of day into night is just a simple echo of the coffin passing from light into the dark of the ground. Some critics saw the adherence to the strict facts of death as slighting religion and criticized it as a shabbily composed structure with worn-faced working folk raised up to life-size in a gigantic work as if they had some kind of noble importance. Other critics such as Proudhon loved the inference of equality and virtue of all people and recognized how such a painting could help turn the course of Western art and politics.


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