The Social Sublime: Decoding Courbet's Burial at Ornans

2019 is the 200th anniversary year of Gustave Courbet’s birth. From inventing Social Realism to pulling down Imperialist monuments, few other artists have done so much to change the course of history. MutualArt takes a forensic look at perhaps his most radical painting

Gustave Courbet, Painting of Human Figures, the History of a Burial at Ornans, known as Burial at Ornans (1849-50) 

It’s no overstatement to say that Gustave Courbet altered the course of modern history. By the time of his death in 1877 in exile in Switzerland, and with a liver ruined by overconsumption of alcohol, he was already recognized as the foremost practitioner, if not the founder himself, of a new school of painting called Realism.

Courbet’s brand of realism was also a vehicle for social and political change. Not only did his pictures of stone breakers and drunken priests draw from real life rather than classical or devotional literature, but they also enjoyed a redoubled sort of realism in that they stoked actual unrest, repulsion, evolution, revolution and change. The outrage of Paris’ clerics and the distaste of France’s mainstream institutions ensured both Courbet’s fame and his success in changing the art world into something resembling its modern form.

For example, in 1855, during the Universal Exposition in Paris, Courbet defied the mainstream annual Salon where the most well-known artists displayed their work, instead setting up his own, self-funded solo-exhibition. It was the first of its kind, and it not only inspired the creation of the Salon des Refusés - an alternative to the establishment Salon which became crucial to the development of the radical Impressionists - but also set the precedent for our contemporary modes of exhibition, the single-artist shows and retrospectives gracing galleries from the MoMA to the Tate today.

Courbet also had an active role in the Paris Commune of 1871, the radical socialist organization who took control of the French capital after the government submitted to the Imperialist Prussians. The commune was short-lived, but enormously influential. As a result, however, Courbet’s final years were dogged by a lawsuit which found him guilty of ordering the destruction of the Vendôme column, erected by Napoleon I. But this iconoclasm, combined with his radical painterly practice, meant he became a kind of monument himself. He was a man who literally tore down the establishment, as well as doing so figuratively in his painting. An icon and an iconoclast. And in no work is this more apparent than the Burial at Ornans (1849-50).

Detail: Grandfather Oudot and the pall-bearers 

The death and burial of Courbet’s beloved Grandfather Oudot at Ornans in 1848 may well have provided the inspiration for a funeral scene at the painter’s birth place. Indeed, M. Oudot appears in the painting. The extreme-left figure is modelled on him, as proven by its resemblance to the 1847 drawing, Portrait of Oudot, the Artist’s Grandfather, currently housed in the Courbet museum in Ornans. The figure's head is lit more directly than most in the picture, and his strange positioning, removed from the group and glancing back over his shoulder, is not in harmony with the other figures. The coffin extends directly from his body and points towards the grave. Is he a ghostly attendant at his own funeral?

As catalogued by Gerstle Mack in his biography of Courbet, every figure in the painting is modelled on a genuine resident of Ornans, from the four pall-bearers (one of whom is the violinist and childhood friend of Courbet, Alphonse Promayet) to Courbet’s own mother amongst the mourning women and his sisters (in order from left to right: Juliette covering her mouth, Zoé covering her entire face, and Zélie) just behind the dog. These details made the painting a sensation during its conception, its acutely personal nature meaning so much to the town at the time. The painting manages to hold this quality, though all of its participants are long dead.

Detail: the landscape attendant 

The prominent crucifix is framed on the right and left by the two craggy hills of Roche du Mont and Roche du Chateau, which define the landscape of Ornans. In this sense the very landscape of Courbet’s home is itself raised to the level of devotional symbol, flanking Christ like the thieves at Calvary. Just as Courbet was to elevate real-life, ordinary people to the level of classical art subjects, so, too, he felt a profound, earthy devotion to the land which bore him.

Courbet complained in a letter to his friend, the writer Jules François Felix Fleury-Husson, who wrote under the name Champfleury, about the lack of space in his Ornans studio where he painted this, his largest ever work. “Only a madman could work under the conditions I must put up with. I am groping blindly. I have no room to step back.”

Many critics and biographers, including Mack, have cited this letter as evidence to explain the flattened aspect ratio of the painting, the lack of perspectival depth which makes it appear like a frieze. Indeed, the scale of the thing is such that it begins to suggest ‘mural’ rather than ‘canvas.’

Detail: the sisters Courbet - Juliette, Zoé, and Zélie 

But perhaps this effect of collapsing the Ornans skyline into the foreground might have something to do with the painting’s sense of immediacy, its sense of intimacy and locality. The ridges in Ornans ring the town around, and contribute to the sense of community and stolidity. The way they catch and keep the evening sun in the late summer long after the valley has gone dark, and the way they catch and present the snows of winter, contribute to the emotional landscape of its people, even to this day. Bringing these ridges into the foreground through a lack of perspective means the landscape participates actively in the mourning for one of its people. The crowd gather, and so does the land, to see off one of their own. Perhaps this quality of flatness is also why the painting’s legacy endures, perhaps fore-echoing socialist murals by artists like Diego Rivera.

As Mack points out, not only are these faces taken from real and identifiable residents, but they display piquant emotional details. Look at the grip of Courbet’s mother, the right-most figure in the second row, squeezing the hand of the mayor’s daughter. Look, too, how the pall-bearers turn their faces away from the coffin in a gesture of barely-controlled repulsion at the smell of the corpse.

Detail: the grave, and M. Cassard, the grave digger 

The painting was duly hounded by critics when it appeared in the Salon of 1850-1851, with writers and members of the public alike thinking that its humble subject matter, and the wrinkled rural faces with which it is populated, were ugly and crude. But the painting endures as a masterpiece of the secular-spiritual. If we have an idea of ourselves as complex, experiencing, subjective human beings within a community of other equally complex subjectivities, if we have a belief in the sublime to be found in the everyday, and the strength of social ritual and community spirit even in the face of a gaping, skull-strewn grave, then it is because Courbet taught us to know such things.

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