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AP®︎/College Art History

Unit 6: Lesson 2

Modern and contemporary art

Courbet, The Stonebreakers

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849, Oil on canvas, 165 x 257 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (destroyed))

Realism and reality

If we look closely at Courbet's painting The Stonebreakers of 1849 (painted only one year after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote their influential pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto) the artist's concern for the plight of the poor is evident. Here, two figures labor to break and remove stone from a road that is being built. In our age of powerful jackhammers and bulldozers, such work is reserved as punishment for chain-gangs.
Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)
Unlike Millet, who, in paintings like The Gleaners, was known for depicting hard-working, but idealized peasants, Courbet depicts figures who wear ripped and tattered clothing. And unlike the aerial perspective Millet used in The Gleaners to bring our eye deep into the French countryside during the harvest, the two stone breakers in Courbet's painting are set against a low hill of the sort common in the rural French town of Ornans, where the artist had been raised and continued to spend a much of his time. The hill reaches to the top of the canvas everywhere but the upper right corner, where a tiny patch of bright blue sky appears. The effect is to isolate these laborers, and to suggest that they are physically and economically trapped. In Millet's painting, the gleaners' rounded backs echo one another, creating a composition that feels unified, where Courbet's figures seem disjointed. Millet's painting, for all its sympathy for these poor figures, could still be read as "art" by viewers at an exhibition in Paris.
Courbet wants to show what is "real," and so he has depicted a man that seems too old and a boy that seems still too young for such back-breaking labor. This is not meant to be heroic: it is meant to be an accurate account of the abuse and deprivation that was a common feature of mid-century French rural life. And as with so many great works of art, there is a close affiliation between the narrative and the formal choices made by the painter, meaning elements such as brushwork, composition, line, and color.
Like the stones themselves, Courbet's brushwork is rough—more so than might be expected during the mid-nineteenth century. This suggests that the way the artist painted his canvas was in part a conscious rejection of the highly polished, refined Neoclassicist style that still dominated French art in 1848.
Perhaps most characteristic of Courbet's style is his refusal to focus on the parts of the image that would usually receive the most attention. Traditionally, an artist would spend the most time on the hands, faces, and foregrounds. Not Courbet. If you look carefully, you will notice that he attempts to be even-handed, attending to faces and rock equally. In these ways, The Stonebreakers seems to lack the basics of art (things like a composition that selects and organizes, aerial perspective and finish) and as a result, it feels more "real."
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • hopper cool style avatar for user Madeliv
    Could Courbet have been autistic? "his refusal to focus on the parts of the image that would usually receive the most attention" really reminded me of drawings by autistic children, who also give equal attention to all the details in the drawing.

    For more on art by autistic people, see for example: http://www.centreforthemind.com/publications/Autistic_artists.cfm
    "We argue here that the difference between autistic child artists and normal individuals is that autistic artists make no assumptions about what is to be seen in their environment. They have not formed mental representations of what is significant and consequently perceive all details as equally important. Equivalently, they do not impose visual or linguistic schema - a process that we believe is necessary for rapid conceptualisation in a dynamic existence, especially when the information presented to the eye is incomplete." reminded me of the description above "Perhaps most characteristic of Courbet's style is his refusal to focus on the parts of the image that would usually receive the most attention. Traditionally, an artist would spent the most time on the hands, faces, and foregrounds. Not Courbet. If you look carefully, you will notice that he attempts to be even-handed, attending to faces and rock equally."
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jake Suzuki
      I doubt you can assume that what appears to be a conscious rejection of practice for a new style as evidence for a psychological diagnosis; if you were to study the length and breadth of his work, and the literature on Courbet, and still came to the same conclusion then feel free to write a thesis on the topic.

      Could he have been? Probably not. Could a single paragraph in an essay about a single work be a sufficient prompt for further investigation? Definitely. Is it likely to be a fruitful investigation? Probably not.
      (14 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user Haylee
    What was used to capture the image of this painting, since it was destroyed in 1945? Was photography advanced enough to take the picture here? Or could it be a copy by another artist?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Ahmad Al-Daoud
    How did Courbet manage to create such a realistic painting? Was he raised in the same/similar conditions these stone breakers have been raised in? Could this be a reflection of his life or not but yeet?
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Polina Vitić
      Courbet was the son of a prosperous landowner. His family was wealthy and he was actually studying to become a lawyer when he quit to become an artist instead.

      So it is unlikely that he was raised in the same harsh conditions as the stonebreakers. However, the article points out that the setting of this painting is similar to that of Courbet's birthplace, and notes that he spent much time in his hometown, even after he had grown up and moved away.

      Also, don't forget that Courbet was part of the Realism movement, and was especially committed to depicting everyday reality as he saw it. Courbet told his friends that one day he saw a group of men working near the road, and that these workers were the inspiration for his painting The Stonebreakers.

      My guess would be that, although Courbet did not grow up poor like the men in his painting, he was able to create a realistic painting through years of observing men working in the countryside where he grew up.
      (5 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lauren Swalec
    The caption for the painting says it was destroyed. It also list the location as Dresden. Was this one of the works of art destroyed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s? If so, why did they destroy this particular piece?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user rachel.levine
      It was destroyed in 1945. An answer to one of the other questions on this page quotes wikipedia as saying "It was destroyed during World War II, along with 154 other pictures, when a transport vehicle moving the pictures to the castle of Königstein, near Dresden, was bombed by Allied forces in February 1945." So I think it wan't destroyed intentionally. However, the credibility of Wikipedia is questionable, so I would do some more research if you are really interested in the answer.
      (2 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
    Is this one of the first paintings that we know of that exposes the true plight of the poor? Millet's work seems more honorable in presenting the figures. Courbet seems to force you to see the misery of these people in a very real and unpleasant way.

    Also, It says under the painting (Gemäldegalerie Dresden, Destroyed). Was this painting destroyed in the infamous Dresden firebombings of World War II?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user weber
      Thanks for drawing my eye to the notation below the picture. Yes, sadly, it was lost, though not in the firebombings. Per its wikipedia entry, "It was destroyed during World War II, along with 154 other pictures, when a transport vehicle moving the pictures to the castle of Königstein, near Dresden, was bombed by Allied forces in February 1945."
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user r.allen3
    what do i do on this and my name is raven allen
    (0 votes)
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