One of the rarest subjects in art depicts an event with which we are all familiar. El Greco painted it. So did Poussin, Carlo Carra, and Gustave Courbet. If you really want to press the point - several other artists, in depicting Christ's descent from the cross or various scenes of the interment, might also qualify. The subject is funerals. We've all set through them, endured them, recalled them, and dreaded them. And, given the negative vibes associated today with death and dying, it is little wonder they are not exactly at the top of anyone's list of favourite painting subjects. Of course there's nothing new in all that, perhaps accounting for their scarcity in art. Undoubtedly the most famous work on the subject would be El Greco's impressive Burial of Count Orgaz, painted in 1586 in which he depicts not only the funeral, the dead body, and dozens of life-size portraits (some full-figured) of those in attendance, but up above he portrays the decedent pleading with the powers that be for entrance into Heaven. I've never been able to go to such a service without recalling this funerary masterpiece.
Equally impressive in its own way, is the 1850 painting by the French Realist, Gustave Courbet, entitled A Burial at Ornans. This one, unlike El Greco's, only operates on one level--an earthly...one might even say "earthy" one. Like El Greco's, this one also is life size. Man, is it ever...a whopping 21 feet long and some 12 feet tall. By my count there are at least 42 figures and a dog. This time the body is discreetly tucked away in a coffin borne in slings (for lowering it into the grave) by four sombre pallbearers. It's a Catholic funeral with the clergy, altar boys, coffin, and pallbearers occupying the right side of the enormous canvas while the men are depicted in centre and the women, many (including the dog) with their heads turned away, are in the left third of the painting. (Men and women were traditionally segregated at Catholic funerals.)
Unlike El Greco, Courbet had no religious message to impart with his work. Its massive size was not dictated by church architecture but the maximum size allowed for history paintings (for salon entry) by the French Academy . And therein lies the artist's whole purpose in choosing such a scene. Courbet was rebelling against the Academic penchant for the grand and glorious in favour of the common, everyday brand of history painting--eschewing the burial of a count in favour of the uncounted. The mood, as is the landscape, is sombre, matching the dour faces peering into the open grave occupying the bottom centre of the painting; every one reflecting the very real knowledge that this scene will all too soon be replayed again and again for each of them. On that level, the painting is powerfully effective, but perhaps less so today, in that we look at it with a much more detached view, as if confidant that it "couldn't happen to us."