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Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, begun late summer 1849, completed 1850, exhibited at the Salon of 1850-51, 124 x 260 inches, oil on canvas (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
We're at the Musee D'Orsay and we're looking at Gustave Courbet's gigantic canvas "The Burial at Ornans." It was painted in 1849-1850 and exhibited the next year. This is the funeral of Courbet's great uncle. Courbet came from a relatively wealthy family in this relatively small town in France but close to the Swiss border. Right, I think we just read it had about three thousand people in it at that time so it's a really small town. We're looking at a group of people where everyone knows each other, so these long-standing ties. We see the cliffs are very typical of this area of France. He's pushed all of the figures really close to us, it's almost like a classical frieze in the way in which the figures play across this shallow foreground, and they're forced forward at least optically by those cliffs. And what that does is it means that these figures which are a little bit bigger than life-size in reality are really available to us and it's not an idealized representation of what a funeral would be but it is all of the distractions of a funeral, of an actual funeral. And I think we all know what that feels like. So these are very specific people. If exhibited in the salon it would have someone heroic who had died, and the sky would open up and there would be a sense of the afterlife. There would be a sense of redemption and here there isn't that promise of redemption, but to me the redemption although it doesn't lie in Christ, lies somewhere else. So the redemption is his faith in these people, his faith in the real. Because of course Courbet was removing that classicism and saying the art that is authentic, the art that is an expression of what we actually experience, that art is true and this was the heart of realism and of Courbet's project. What's interesting though is the representation of Christ as a sculpture carried by one of the clergymen amongst the people who are going about the business of the funeral, carrying the coffin, reading from the Bible, and officiating in general. The sense of the coffin moving in from the left, its imminence in the grave feels much more palpable to me, separated only by the figure who's officiating there at the graveside and some small children. But there's a real sense of this community in that we have children, lots of children, and there's old people and middle-aged people and a dog. But Courbet is not creating that photographic realism at all. He's creating a synthetic realism. The dog chancing by becomes kind of an emblem for the sense of distractiveness, the chaos, the actuality of a moment. There's something very poignant to me about this community coming together for this funeral, for a long-standing member of the community, and the way it almost functions as a modern momento mori. Death comes to all of us, and all we have in a way is our moment, our time, our community. Courbet, I think, underscores that in a number of ways. First of all there's real beauty to the way he's rendering these figures, but there's also a discarded skull at the edge of that hole in the ground, which seems as if it had been dug up absentmindedly when they dug this fresh grave. And that skull, a reminder of course of the more traditional paintings of Golgotha and Christ, of the crucifixion, but here this notion that there was somebody else who died who has now been forgotten. In the extreme right, there's the face of a child, and that paint is so black that the face floats in space. There is this quality of thinking about the nature of selfhood and of our own mortality that is very poignant. Because we don't have that typical composition which would have focused us on a main heroic figure and there's instead this kind of democracy of attention where everyone is getting their own portrait. Each person is in the private space of their own mind at this moment of a funeral, thinking about mortality but at the same time thinking about maybe dinner. I would argue that there are two things going on. I think you're absolutely right. There is that individual that is represented here, that was so important to Courbet. But at the same time there's a kind of type, as well, and that is still here. There's the clergy. There's the town officials. There are the women going about their traditional role weeping and mourning. There are the children who may be distracted but are also representing beauty and youth, and a kind of innocence. And so there are still types at work but he is transcending those types with that individual experience. This was shown first in Ornans itself and then in the Paris salon where people were just astounded. What was this thing that Courbet was showing? Well, I mean it broke every rule. And it didn't look like how art was supposed to look, certainly at this scale. It wasn't composed. It had no redemptive message it wasn't ideal. It wasn't the right kind of subject. I mean, it wasn't right in any way. The people who posed for this, some scholars have suggested felt ridiculed by the Parisans but for Courbet that notion of the rural was in fact much more authentic without the polish, and in a sense without the falseness that urban culture had developed. And of course Courbet's whole idea is to paint the real and the concrete and to turn his back on Romanticism and that kind of emotion and to paint things, I think the famous thing is, "Show me an angel and I'll paint one."