September 7, 2014 – January 18, 2015

Gustave Courbet, who was born on June 10, 1819, in Ornans in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France and died December 31, 1877, in La Tour-de-Peilz on Lake Geneva, counts among the most important forerunners of classic modernism. His self-confident demeanor, the emphasis he placed upon his individuality as an artist, his inclination towards provocation and breaking taboos, not to mention his revolutionary painting technique, were to set standards that have influenced generations of artists. The exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler is the first dedicated to Gustave Courbet in Switzerland for over fifteen years.

The show presents pioneering works from all phases of the artist’s career, including a number of paintings that have rarely been seen in public or which indeed for many decades were not publicly accessible at all. Greeting us at the very beginning are the early, complex self-portraits with which Courbet made his impressive debut on the Paris art scene and which have become icons of the nineteenth century. These are followed by scenes capturing the artist’s native countryside: pictures of secluded streams and springs, rock formations and grottoes that revolutionized landscape painting. With his representations of waves and his views of the sea, Courbet succeeds in conveying the beauty and dynamism of nature each time anew. His winterscapes prove him to be a virtuoso painter of the color white. Paint, the artist’s material, now becomes the actual subject of art: the significance of the motif wanes and the "how" becomes as important as the "what"—a fundamental development paving the way ultimately towards abstraction. At the heart of the exhibition are Courbet’s mysterious female nudes beside
water and his famous picture The Origin of the World: the profound impact of this painted breach of taboo continues to be felt in art right up to the present day.

The exhibition was created by Ulf Küster, curator at the Fondation Beyeler, and is part of the "Courbet Season", a joint venture with the Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva, which is mounting a concurrent show in the Musée Rath that focuses upon Courbet’s years in Switzerland.

Room Guide


Autumn 2014 is the "Courbet Season": Gustave Courbet, the great Realist painter and a revolutionary of painting, came from the Jura, the mountain range that links Switzerland and France. Courbet was always closely attached to his native region but he died in exile in Switzerland, on Lake Geneva. In the autumn of 2014, the Fondation Beyeler and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva will be staging two exhibitions devoted to Courbet’s oeuvre. The Geneva show will focus on Courbet’s years in exile in Switzerland, to which little attention has been paid until now. The Fondation Beyeler will show Courbet as one of the first avant-garde artists.

"GUSTAVE COURBET. LES ANNÉES SUISSES" at the MUSÉE RATH. 5 September 2014 – 4 January 2015.

Gustave Courbet’s final years, spent in Switzerland from 23 July 1873 to 31 December 1877, have been traditionally neglected by art historians. They have long considered that Courbet, ill and emotionally affected by his exile, was no longer the great painter who upended French and European painting in the 1840s. These judgements, largely promulgated at the time, are still prevalent in the realms of present-day art history. Indeed, Courbet’s Swiss years are generally summarised by a handful of works in the exhibitions dedicated to him, by a few paragraphs in monographs on the artist and by the standard comments on his decline. Nevertheless, Courbet continued to be Courbet: a working artist who painted, exhibited his works, led an active social life and was involved in the artistic and political life of his adopted country. The exhibition at the Musée Rath, bringing together for the first time over seventy paintings either created in Switzerland or carried into exile by the artist, wishes to focus on this part of his life, reconsider its importance in his career and measure the impact of his presence on the shores of Lake Geneva upon the Swiss artistic scene. The exhibition thus bears witness to the fact that Courbet, drawing on his past of revolutionary artist and the pictorial experimentations that he continued to pursue, attempted to initiate – despite his illness and the distress caused by his never-ending court cases – an astonishing renaissance.

Catalogue «Gustave Courbet»

The life and work of Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) were defined by his rejection of the academic painting tradition and conservative politics in France. His work marks the beginning of a development that continues to shape our understanding of art today. Courbet’s ability to play with the expectations of the viewer, his accents of color, his use of hidden references to clas­sical iconography, and, above all, the emphasis that he placed on his individuality as an artist have made him a key figure in the period of transition from tradi­tional to modern painting. His famous work, L’origine du monde (The Origin of the World, 1866), is the focus of this opulent volume, and it is framed by no less spectacular self-portraits, depictions of women, land­scapes, seascapes, and winter images dating from later in his career. Examining the broad spectrum of Courbet’s oeuvre, the publication includes the most recent research on the artist’s strategy of ambiguity and his revolutionary use of color.

Edited by Fondation Beyeler, Ulf Küster, Texts by Stéphane Guégan, Michel Hilaire, Ulf Küster, Laurence Madeline, Bruno Mottin, James Rubin, graphic design by Marie Lusa.


Tour through the «GUSTAVE COURBET» exhibition with curator Ulf Küster

Marina Abramovic on Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World



1819  Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet is born on June 10 at Ornans, near Besançon, in Franche-Comté. His father, Régis Courbet (1798–1882), is a wealthy landowner; his mother, Sylvie (1794–1871), née Oudot, comes from an old local family. Gustave has four younger sisters: Clarisse (1821–1834), Zoé (1824–1905), Zélie (1828–1875), and Juliette (1831–1915).

1831–37  Courbet attends the seminary in Ornans. In 1833 he begins receiving tuition in art at the seminary from Claude-Antoine Beau, a pupil of Antoine Jean Gros. In 1834 he produces his first painting to have survived, Portrait de jeune garçon.

1837  Courbet attends the Collège Royale in Besançon. He takes courses in drawing given by Charles Antoine Flajoulot, a pupil of Louis David, at the local art academy.

1839–43  In the fall Courbet moves to Paris. Though he probably does so in order to study law, he schools himself as an artist by copying works in the Louvre and receives tuition from Carl von Steuben and Nicolas Auguste Hesse. He also attends the private academies of Charles Suisse and Père Lapin. In 1841 he visits the seaside town of Le Havre for the first time. That year he also begins submitting work to the annual Salon exhibition in Paris.

1844  After failing for three years in succession, he is included in the Salon for the first time, exhibiting the self-portrait Courbet au chien noir.

1847  Courbet makes the acquaintance of philosopher, social theorist, and anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) and of writer Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867).
In September he travels to Belgium, probably in the company of writer Jules Champfleury (1821–1889). His son, Alfred Émile (1847–1872), is born. The mother, Virginie Binet (1808–1865), sits regularly for Courbet, who does not legally acknowledge his paternity.

1848  Courbet does not participate in the February Revolution, but designs the headpiece of Le Salut public, a newspaper founded by Baudelaire, Champfleury, and Charles Toubin (1820–1891). He is a regular visitor to the Brasserie Andler, which is frequented by Realist writers and artists. The Salon is mounted without selection by jury: all paintings submitted are exhibited, including ten by Courbet.

1849  Courbet receives a gold medal from the reinstituted Salon jury for Une après-dînée à Ornans, which is purchased by the French state.

1850  Courbet submits nine paintings to the 1850–51 Salon. Thanks to the gold medal he was awarded the previous year the jury accepts all nine works, including the “trilogy of Realism”: Un enterrement à Ornans, Les Casseurs de pierre, and Les Paysans de Flagey revenant de la foire.

1852  Virginie Binet leaves Courbet to settle with their son in Dieppe. Minister of the Interior Charles-Auguste, duc de Morny, purchases one of Courbet’s work, which is shown at the Salon.

1853  In the fall Courbet travels in Switzerland, visiting Bern and Fribourg. Alfred Bruyas (1821–1877), the wealthy son of a Montpellier banker, purchases two of the three works by Courbet exhibited at the Salon. Henceforth one of the artist’s most important patrons, Bruyas commissions Tableau-solution from him in June. Two further portrait commissions will follow in 1854.

1854  From May to September Courbet stays with Bruyas in Montpellier, where he paints La Rencontre and Le Bord de mer à Palavas.

1855  The Exposition universelle in Paris includes eleven of the fourteen works submitted by Courbet. Outside the Exposition he mounts a solo exhibition in a specially erected “Pavilion of Realism.” The forty works on show there include L’Atelier du peintre.

1857  He visits Brussels, then travels to Frankfurt am Main. The Salon jury accepts all six paintings submitted by him.

1858–59  Courbet stays in Frankfurt until the spring of 1859 and, while there, hunts in the Taunus mountains.

1860  “Wagner et Courbet” by Champfleury appears in the daily Courrier de Paris.

1861  At the Salon Courbet shows hunting scenes, animal paintings, and landscapes. He receives an award again. He is a member of the committee selecting French contributions to the International Exhibition due to be held in London the following year. Some students ask Courbet to teach them, but the studio he opens for the purpose in December will close again in April 1862.

1862  Courbet is represented at the International Exhibition in London by two paintings. He spends the summer in the Saintonge region. He paints mainly floral still lifes and landscapes.

1864  He spends most of the year at Ornans, where he paints many landscapes.

1865  The artist spends September to November at Trouville, where he meets Claude Monet (1840–1926) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)

1866  Courbet is commissioned by diplomat Khalil-Bey (1831–1879) to paint Le Sommeil. Courbet also paints L’Origine du monde for him.

1867  During the Exposition universelle he again organizes a separate exhibition, featuring more than one hundred of his works; at the Exposition itself he is represented by four.

1869  In August and September Courbet stays at Étretat in Normandy, where he paints coastal landscapes and pictures of the sea. In Munich an entire gallery is set aside for his work at the Internationale Kunstausstellung. King Ludwig II of Bavaria awards him the Knight’s Cross of the Order of St. Michael. In late September the artist paints five pictures in Munich.

1870  Courbet is nominated for the Légion d’honneur, but refuses the honor in an open letter.
July 19: France declares war on Prussia.
September 1: Napoleon III is taken captive after the French capitulate at the Battle of Sedan.
September 4: The Third Republic is proclaimed in Paris.
September 6: Courbet is elected President of the Commission des arts. He is to organize the safeguarding of Paris’s art treasures until the end of hostilities.
September 14: He calls for the demolition of the Vendôme Column, erected to celebrate French victories in the Napoleonic Wars. 
October 29: A convinced pacifist, he reads in public his “À l’armée allemande et aux artistes allemandes,” which calls for an end to the war.

March 18: The Commune is established in Paris.
April 16: Courbet is elected to the council of the Paris Commune.
May 16: The Vendôme Column is dismantled by order of the Commune.
May 28: The Commune capitulates to the regular French army. 
June 3: Courbet’s mother dies.
June 7: Courbet is arrested and charged with responsibility for the destruction of the Vendôme Column.
September 2: Found guilty of complicity in the demolition of the Vendôme Column, he is sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of 500 francs.
September 22: He is committed to Sainte-Pélagie prison in Paris. Health problems cause him to be transferred on December 30 to a clinic in Neuilly, where he remains until the following April.

May 1: On returning to Paris, Courbet finds that his studio has been looted in his absence. He spends May to September in Ornans and its environs. With the help of his assistants Cherubino Pata and Marcel Ordinaire he produces many views of Ornans, along with snow landscapes and seascapes.

Courbet’s court case is reopened.
May 30: The National Assembly votes to reerect the Vendôme Column. Work is to begin when the sum to be paid by Courbet in restitution has been specified. All his property is confiscated.
July 23: Courbet goes into exile in Switzerland, settling at La Tour-de-Peilz, on Lake Geneva, in October. He starts painting views of Chillon Castle and Lake Geneva.
He shows a selection of paintings, including L’Atelier du peintre, at the Austrian Art Association during the World’s Fair in Vienna.

June 26, 1874: Courbet alone is declared legally responsible for destroying the Vendôme Column. The judgment is confirmed on August 6, 1875.

Courbet vainly attempts to obtain a pardon from the new republican government.

May 4: Courbet is ordered to pay the total cost of rebuilding the Vendôme Column, which amounts to 323,091 francs and 68 centimes. His health deteriorates. Courbet dies on December 31.