Gustave Courbet - A Burial in Ornans

by Alexandra Tuschka


The audience of the Paris Salon found themselves in front of this huge oil painting in 1850/51. The dimensions of 315 x 668 cm were until then reserved for history paintings: mythological, biblical scenes, important events in world history. Now, however, one looked at an everyday, village funeral scene. Not only the dimensions broke with the academic standard: not even the dead person was named. The more than 40 people in the picture are individual, but none is shown exposed. Nothing catches our eye, hardly do they interact with each other. No narrative thread is discernible in the painting, and despite the morbid subject matter, we see no hope for eternal life. Courbet also applied the paint thickly and opaquely with palette knives, and the abundance of black depresses our mood as well.


Courbet had submitted the painting as a "history painting" despite the unconventional and everyday subject. He believed that only contemporaries were capable of capturing the spirit of an era and had no interest in the pathetic and unrealistic works that dominated art in his time. Widely quoted is his statement "Show me an angel, and I'll paint it!". For him, art should not be "beautiful", but above all "true". He called this work his "manifesto" and indeed - although, or perhaps because - it so irritated visual habits and caused a scandal, this work led to his final breakthrough as a painter and is representative of the epoch we now call "realism". Courbet himself said of the work that it was "in truth the funeral of the (epoch of) Romanticism."

"A Burial in Ornans" tells us that we are here in Courbet's hometown, Ornans, on the border with Switzerland; a hamlet with a few thousand inhabitants at the time. Most of the people here know each other; they have come together to mourn one of their number. In this painting, Courbet portrayed his fellow man; he had a personal relationship with many of them. Courbet made his painting in the attic of the family home in Ornans. He ordered the individual community members and had them sit there as models for him. Other paintings were also created in this makeshift studio.


Of these, the group seems almost pushed to the foreground. The close juxtaposition of the figures, the many overlaps seem frieze-like. The entire group can be divided into three parts. The men are to be seen on the left, the women on the right; well-behaved separated as also in the church. They all move towards the center of the picture, the already dug grave. The gravedigger Antoine Joseph Cassard, son of a cobbler and poor farmer, has placed his jacket and woolen cap on the edge of the pit he has just freshly dug, as the color of the earth shows. He kneels in an expectant pose. Many of the people are identifiable by contemporary documents. The main character - the dead man - is Courbet's great uncle. However, his name is not mentioned in the title, which makes the painting anonymous and even more commonplace.


On the left, four grave bearers come into the picture. They are probably a shoemaker, a farmer, a musician and an innkeeper. The latter two are friends of Courbet. Two boys, altar boys, accompany the men. One carries a candle and looks questioningly at one of the bearers. Here the only recognizable, contact of two people takes place. Only with looks, without words. The other carries a vase with holy water into the picture. Five sextons in white robes are recognizable next to it. One of them has a big nose and looks at the viewer. He is carrying the cross. The sexton's job was often performed on an honorary basis. This man, for example, was a winemaker in his main profession. In front, in profile, the priest can be seen reading from a book, probably a breviary. The two men in red are sacristans; they seem to like to drink one over the thirst in their free time, look at their red, enlarged noses. Next to them is the mayor of the small town of Prosper Teste. Two childhood friends of Courbet are depicted somewhat elevated. The group of women on the right includes Courbet's mother and three of his sisters, as well as his little cousin off to the side. The two men standing in front are shown in the clothes of the revolutionaries. One wears white gaiters, the second blue stockings. His open hand posture suggests a sympathy for the events. A hunting dog has entered the picture as if casually. He looks a little questioningly out of the right edge of the picture.

The painting thus moves between the categories of group portrait, history painting and genre painting; and all this with a radical realistic look. Spiritual aspects such as divine light or the prospect of eternal life are not found here. However, there are two compositional tricks that can give comfort: Jesus on the cross towers above the crowd, making all below equal and giving a prospect of peace after death on the horizon. And n o more importantly, a skull and bones are found at the excavated grave. Hardly noticed here, they could speak for a forgotten dead man who now had to clear space in the pit. However, we know exactly these two motifs from crucifixion scenes on Mount Golgotha. This literally translated "place of the skull" is said, according to apocryphal tradition, to have revealed the skull of Adam at the crucifixion of Jesus. It is hardly possible that Courbet did not consciously integrate this connotation into the painting, especially since the depicted cemetery itself was not excavated until 1848. It is located somewhat outside the city, so that we can recognize the regional surroundings in the background, which are characterized by steep limestone cliffs. The graves laid out here were thus presumably freshly laid out. Courbet thus shows a religious painting with Christian motifs, the contemplation of the mourners, the ceremonies of his time, which now, more than 150 years later and with a little distance, became a "history painting" for posterity, entirely in his sense.


Gustave Courbet - A Burial in Ornans

Oil on canvas, 1849/50, 315 x 668 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris


El Greco - Crucifixion

Oil on canvas, 17th century, Casa y Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain