Impressionism for Beginners #4: Gustave Courbet at the 1855 Paris World’s Fair

This is a series of short articles offering a simple yet detailed overview of art movements – an attempt to make art history more “digestible.” The series begins with a look at Impressionism.

As previously mentioned, the Realists had already challenged the status quo of the academies that controlled art production in France by representing scenes from everyday life. However, many Realist works were admitted to the Salons because they still respected the aesthetics and practices of Classical Art that were championed by the academy.

Nevertheless, there were a number of notable painters often identified as Realists whose works were more often than not left out. It is worth looking at said examples, as they mark the beginning of an unrest that would eventually prompt some artists to seek new, alternative routes and ways to exhibit and sell their art works.

For example, in 1855, Paris hosted a World’s Fair. This was a major international exhibition of industry and culture that followed London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.

An Inside View of the Gallery of Machines at the 1855 World’s Fair, Paris. Max Berthelin. 1855.

A committee appointed for the event was in charge of selecting works of Art. But many of the now most famous French painters of the time were rejected – including Camille Pissarro, Édouard Manet and Gustave Courbet, among others.

The latter was a leading figure of the Realist movement. He was known for his commitment to painting only what he could see, his rejection of academic conventions and the Romanticism of the previous generation of visual artists.

Courbet had submitted 14 of his paintings for exhibition at the 1855 Paris World’s Fair. However, these works were turned down by the selection committee – officially for lack of space. Courbet decided to take matters into his own hands and built his own temporary structure next to the official site of the World’s Fair.

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). A leading figure of the Realist movement.

The gallery was named The Pavilion of Realism and within it, Courbet displayed 40 of his works. Interestingly, the most notable of these was The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory of Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist.

The figures in this painting, which is known as one of his major works, are allegorical representations of various influences of Courbet’s artistic life. It is particularly worth noting that the focus is on a landscape painter – a figure generally derided by the French art academies.

The success of the Pavilion of Realism branded Courbet as the hero of the Paris avant-garde. Later that year, Courbet would also write a Realist Manifesto, which outlined the aesthetics and practices of the movement. His success also proved that there were other ways that artists could showcase their works besides the official ones, and would later inspired the Impressionists to do the same.

The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in My Artistic and Moral Life. Gustave Courbet. 1855. Here, Courbet criticises the academy’s status quo by placing a landscape painter at the centre of his work.

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