Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Formal Analysis of Gustave Courbet

This is a formal analysis of French painter, Gustave Courbet’s The Stonebreakers, completed in 1850. This piece is a work of Social Realism, which Courbet was known for depicting, and gave emergence to the term avant garde. Courbet’s subject matter at the time was highly offensive to the bourgeoisie, while his works moved away from Romanticism and towards Realism. The Stonebreakers is a great example of these new works, which illustrated truthful, unbiased, and genuine scenes mostly of the lower or working class. Courbet stood for this avant agarde aspect of pushing the boundaries or changing the status quo, even before it was a common movement. He is therefore considered one of the first avant garde artists of the time.

Stonebreakers moves away from depicting items of ‘importance’, which usually consisted of foods, pristine landscapes or architecture, and other components of the upper class. Instead, Courbet has rendered a large piece (over five feet wide and eight feet long) showing a man and young boy working along a roadside in the country. We see the older man in mid swing taking a hammer to the rocks along the roadside. The boy behind him is in midstep of holding a small woven basket of these rocks, giving the viewer a notion that this is a routine action for the two men in their job.

Beyond the foreground of the road, we see the men have a just a few items, consisting of another basket and some tools. At the far right there seems to be a pot and small bag and utensil, perhaps a meal of sorts. The background of the piece is illustrated by a slight hill, of a darker value (suggesting that the men are perhaps in a valley or area affected by sunlight and clouds) that opens up in the extreme upper right of the painting. Courbet has put what looks to be a small rock outcrop, or perhaps a vague representation of trees or shrubbery. This detail is conducted with an abrupt swatch of light brown/ tan value, with a light blue sky completing the space.

The lighting in this piece is beautifully crafted, with great value and spots of luminosity. The large shadow in the background of darker value suggests that maybe these men are working below a large tree or hill blocking the sun. However, the placement of the older mans ‘country style’ hat indicates the sun is still shining upon them. Courbet has rendered the older man’s face with two different values, creating this effect. Once looking at the lighter part of the values, towards the lower part of the man’s facial, the viewer’s eye is then directed towards the brighter part of the man’s hand; an intended highlight. This brings awareness to the texture and of the working mans hand, detailed with dirt and hard linear lines. This device adds to the element of depicting a working class person, in what was considered at the time on of the lowest and laborious jobs in society. Courbet has effectively illustrated these characters as highlighted heroes, through this lighting scheme, which is typical for his work. It is obvious that he has found beauty in this situation in which he actually viewed at one time. After viewing these two men working, he later brought them into his studio to complete this painting. The studio aspect is apparent in this piece, contributing to the great portrayal of ‘natural’ lighting, specifically in the foreground.

Thus, this painting was highly offensive to the upper or bourgeoisie class, whom didn’t care to see situations that didn’t involve any Romantic or Neoclassical elements, specifically including historical or religious references. Upon finish Stonebreakers was (knowingly of Courbet) attacked by critics, whom failed to accept this new and revolutionary style of art. However, with the state of Paris at the time, new artwork styles and techniques depicting scenes and context irrelevant to the bourgeoisie were on the rise. Along with the firm rigidity being taught within the academics of art, more artists began to emerge and create works moving away from the Romanticism, which had dominated French literature and art. These depictions of peasants, working class, and generally middle to lower class subjects became increasingly popular and gave way for the emergence of Realism.


  1. This is a great painting, although it is not one in the Impressionist style. However, perhaps some of your thoughts about light can also be related to Impressionist paintings. I'm particularly reminded of the striking light in Monet's paintings.

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. Although this is not an impressionist painting I also enjoy your thoughts on light, particularly the way the sun is obscured by the workers themselves. I think this just added to the realistic and raw element that Gustave Courbet was really aiming for.


  3. The light aspect of your analysis was very interesting but i also like how you mentioned texture. The way that the painter brought out the texture of the hands to show how hard this person worked is very interesting to me. I am fascinated with how painters are able to capture such textures with mere paint. When we look at impressionist painting there is less details like this but we still get texture through the Impasto and the way that the the brush strokes are made. That is by far my favorite part of impressionist painting is the fact that we can see how the artist applies thick layers of paint in their own way to create unique textures without having to add so much detail.

  4. The lighting in this picture is indeed odd, Courbet is inconsistent in the positioning of highlights and shadows, which would typically suggest multiple light sources. However, in the sunlight, where these two men would work, there will only be one orientation to the shadows. Instead of using highlight and shadow to make the scene realistic, Courbet uses them to draw attention to various parts of the painting.

  5. I really like how you explained the lighting in this piece! I think you described the lighting really well. I think the lighting is a huge part of what made this painting so emotional, and what really draws the eyes attention.