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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris looking at Gustave Courbet's The Burial at Ornans, which Courbet said was his beginning, his manifesto. This was a painting that expressed what he thought painting should be. - [Beth] Large paintings were supposed to be historical, heroic-- - [Steven] allegorical or religious. But this is a genre painting. This is a painting of everyday life. And, according to the rules of the Academy, it had no business being on a canvass this large. - [Beth] Right, genre paintings were small. History paintings were big. That was the rule. But here we have an ordinary funeral, a group of ordinary figures, and an ordinary place. - [Steven] But what I love is that when Courbet submitted this painting to the jury, he submitted it as a history painting. And he must have considered it to be a history painting of our world now. - [Beth] The subject matter promoted by the Academy asked artists to tirelessly repeat the same subjects from ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology and religious subjects. And Courbet wanted to paint his own day, his own time. In fact, he said, "An epoch can only be reproduced by its own artists. I hold the artists of one century basically incapable of reproducing the aspect of a past or future century." - [Steven] So Courbet is painting his world, the world that he grew up in. In fact, these are each individual portraits. - [Beth] Many of the members of Courbet's own family. This is the funeral of Courbet's great-uncle. So, to submit a painting to the jury of the salon, the jury that decided which paintings could be hung in the official exhibitions called salons and not even say the name of the person who's being buried, Courbet is definitely making a statement here. So, what is he saying? - [Steven] Well for one thing, he's bringing the experience of rural life into the capital of France and trying to bring it into the most elite environment for the arts, in effect, heroicizing the ordinary, heroicizing the common humanity. Look what Courbet has put in the middle of this composition. The grave, but also the grave digger. Courbet gives this simple labor a kind of dignity that is completely unexpected in mid-19th century painting. - [Beth] The Revolution of 1848 ended the monarchy and ushered in the second republic. And, it is during this period of realism that we artists turning to figures of laborers, of workers, and showing them in an ennobled and heroic manner. - [Steven] Courbet has composed the painting so that all the figures are pushed up to the foreground. - [Beth] Although there is a bit of meandering back and forth. - [Steven] Well, that's because in the center foreground is a grave-- - [Beth] that opens into our space. - [Steven] Courbet has created a horizontal frieze in contrast to a vertically-oriented canvas that we might expect in a Renaissance painting where a figure would be assumed into heaven. Where we would see angels. Where we would see the clouds parting. Where we would see the possibility for redemption. - [Beth] The Divine is represented by a crucifix, which is carried by one of the clergymen. So the only sense of the Divine is actually physical. - [Steven] The painting is divided roughly into three groups. At the left is the clergy. In fact, we can see the pallbearers carrying the coffin in from the left. In front of the coffin, we can see the priest. And towards the center, town officials. And to their right, women mourning. - [Beth] And each of these different types of figures were treated equally. One art historian has called this, "Democracy in painting." - [Steven] And the faces of the figures, and their poses, have not been idealized. But, one of my favorite aspects of this painting is the hunting dog. In a traditionally-composed painting, perhaps one for the salon, one would not allow a dog to be represented unless it functioned symbolically. This hunting dog seems as if it's just wandered by. And, in a sense, Courbet is using it as an emblem of the authenticity of the experience. That a dog might, in fact, wander by. But some of the figures here are truly mourning, but others look distracted. - [Beth] And I think it's a lack of a focal point. There's no one place where our eye is drawn that does give us that sense of the normal distractions of life, even at a funeral. Even at an event that marks the death of a beloved family member. There's the realities of everyday life that intrude. - [Steven] That's probably most clearly represented by the child at the extreme right edge of the canvas, who seems completely involved in her own thoughts, suggesting a kind of interior experience that is essential to Courbet's belief. - [Beth] And, I think that speaks to another radical aspect of this painting, which is of lack of interaction between the figures. In an academic painting destined for the salon, following the rules of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, figures interact. They have gestures that are readable, that tell us a story. But here, you're right. Each figure is very much alone with their thoughts. None of the gestures are helping to guide our attention, or tell us a story. - [Steven] There are references to the history of painting. We can just make out a skull, a reference perhaps to the skull at the base of the cross in representations of the crucifixion. But the skull looks discarded. The crucifixion is a representation. It's a sculpture. We are firmly planted in the modern world. - [Beth] Courbet, I think, said this best. He said, "Painting is essentially a concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects. An object which is abstract, not physical, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting." - [Steven] He said, "Show me an angel and I'll paint one." (piano music)