It's a story that is re-enacted again and again every year, usually in the early fall, about the time the collegiate academic year commences. A small town boy (or girl), perhaps raised on the farm, with an extraordinary talent for drawing, says good-bye to friends, family, and the tiny community in which he grew up to go off to the big city to study art. In 1839, in the small town of Ornans, near the French border with Switzerland, a cheerful, bearded young man by the name of Gustave played perfectly the role of bright young, artistically inclined would-be student on his way to college, except, unfortunately, it wasn't Paris, it was Besancon, and he was being coerced by his father to study law, not art. That lasted less than a year. He was twenty by now, but even as a boy he'd hated studying from books. Instead he spent his time in the small college's art classes, drawing. Finally, his father relented and agreed to stake him in Paris, though even then, young Gustave hated the academic routine. He moved from the Ecol to the Académie Suiss (which had no damnable instructors, just a building, easel space and models), and he studied at the Louvre.
In going to Paris, he'd pledged to his family that in ten years he would make a name for himself. By 1844, he was making headway. He had a painting accepted at the Salon. There were rejections in the following years, but during the Revolution of 1848, when the power of the Academy over the Salon was at a low ebb, he got several paintings into the show, including the somewhat romantic Man with Leather Belt and Dinner at Ornans, which pleased both the critics and public. With it, he won a second place silver metal, and more importantly, the right to display at future salons without subjecting himself and his work to the predatory whims of the Academic jury. Gustave Courbet had arrived. This last point was important. Two years later, in 1850, he submitted a huge, 10-foot by 21-foot canvas entitled Burial at Ornans. Everyone from the academic critics to the public hated it, but as a former medal winner, they had to display it. The realistic, lower class scene was too big to ignore and too scandalously outrageous to like. It was not noble in any way and told no romantic or heroic tale. It was socialist art--real people at a real funeral.
In the years to come, everything Courbet did stirred up more controversy, even hatred. When the Emperor decided to show off the country in the 1855 World Exhibition, hundreds of artists from other countries were invited to show. But not an outraged Courbet. Reasonably well-off by this time, he built his own Pavillion du Realisme not far from the Palais des Arts, where he exhibited over forty of his own works and charged 1 franc admission. He had few lookers and even fewer sales, but his premier work, The Painter's Studio, (A true allegory showing seven years of my artistic life) nonetheless raised the customary stink. Like Burial at Ornans it was huge (even larger, actually), depicting himself (he had an ego as big as his canvas) in the midst of an enormous room, being watched raptly by friends, a nude model, a young boy and his dog, as well as portrait images of critics of the day, while he put finishing touches on a large landscape painting. Proclaiming his work as "democratic art," Courbet darted from one part of the country to an another showing his works, eventually becoming the best-known painter in the entire world at the time. In 1867, at a Paris exposition similar to that of 1855, he built an even bigger pavilion than before with over 130 paintings. And this time, he and his work were too important to be ignored. The small town farm boy had made good.