I’ll start by saying this: I want not only to see art, but to know it. The point of wandering an art museum is not at all to glance at a painting and declare it “pretty.” I want beauty from my art, and not an easy beauty, but depth and intrigue—beauty that only grows brighter the longer you dwell on it. That kind of beauty takes a commitment and deep understanding of the work, the way marriage requires a sort of love you can’t quite imagine when you turn your head for a pretty girl on the street.
Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (1850) is an amazing painting, but only if you look closely—only if you commit. This work—which has been called the first “modern” (…more on that later) painting—depicts a commoner’s funeral in the artist’s hometown.
First. People in 1850 hated this painting. Large-scale works were usually reserved for glorious subject matter: Royalty, monumental history, Greek gods, or Christ. That was it. And Burial at Ornans was massive—10 by 22 feet—easily dwarfing other paintings and demanding the attention of the crowd coming to the Salon to see elite Parisian art. But Courbet’s subject matter was – one critic said – “ugly,” just a cluster of peasants clustered around the burial of one of their own. Somehow Courbet slipped into the Salon—the pinnacle of academic painting, where all the rigors of style and form and content were celebrated—a work which featured peasants, implied clerical corruption, and put an unremarkable event on a grand, royal scale.
Where does your eye go first? Maybe to the cluster of clergy, who each wear a uniquely irreverent expression. They are either bored, like the two boys, or seem automated and disconnected, like the priest, or leery, like the man holding the cross and the two cardinals. There’s also the herd of women moving right, and actually seem to be leaving the funeral in the middle of the eulogy. Even the dog catches your attention, with its white coat and alert stance—it seems to have perked up at some movement outside our field of vision.
Whatever you notice first, I’d be willing to bet it’s not the grave.
It’s not your fault. Not one of the people in this painting is looking at it, either.
Burial at Ornans trounced on firmly held beliefs about the dead and dying, eluding the glorification and ceremony of death (see El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586-88, right). It cut through this artistic culture’s tendency to dwell on fantasy, and showed death, just like birth, or eating, or working, as a part of daily life. Courbet paved the way for Realism here, when painters began to insist upon depicting ordinary people, and critics—used to luscious paintings of Greek goddesses or grand, powerful battles on steeds—hated it.
With his technique, Courbet steps outside Academic tradition. Look again at the painting, and see how the figures are crowded into the painting and how flat they seem, almost like cut-out figures, or a frieze. Until this art historical moment, the mark of a well-trained, worthy artist was his perfectly concealed brushstrokes and masterful depiction of deep space (see Jacques-Louis David’s coronation painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1805-07). By contrast the paint is loose and rough, almost as if Courbet wants people to see that it’s a farce – paint on canvas, rather than a peek into true reality. After Courbet, more artists – Manet, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso – began to experiment with the medium, breaking away from traditionally accepted subject matter and using color and texture freely, paving the way for what we call Modernism.