Gustave Courbet was the main exponent of realism in nineteenth-century French painting. His style contrasts with the classicism of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the romanticism of Eugène Delacroix. Rejecting the fine, smooth finish of academic paintings, he was the first to popularize the palette-knife technique that enabled him to emulate a variety of textures.
Born in Ornans, Courbet came to Paris, where he exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1841. After his work was rejected from the Exposition Universelle in 1855, he built the Pavilion of Realism, where he held a one-man exhibition that firmly established his position as the leading realist painter. This defiant act and his bold red signature were clear assertions of his disdain for the Académie Royale.
From the 1850s Courbet traveled extensively but consciously maintained his connection to the countryside by frequently returning to Ornans. His contemporary depictions of French peasant life explore and elevate themes considered unworthy of representation in academic culture. He was imprisoned for his prominent role as head of the Federation of Arts in the Paris Commune in 1871. Ostracized for his radical politics, Courbet spent his last years in exile in Switzerland.
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