Gustave Courbet: The Stone Breakers

During the nineteenth century in France, a new style, Realism, emerged, against a backdrop of scientific development. Realists focused on the sights of everyday contemporary life, and often tended to paint subjects that historically no one took interest in. Realists often depicted the mundane and the trivial, such as the working-class, laborers, and poor peasants.

One of the leading French Realists was Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and one of his best known works is The Stone Breakers.

Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849

In The Stone Breakers, Courbet depicts stone breakers as his subjects. This job was traditionally done by the lowest class in society. In his painting, he depicts two men, one relatively old (right) and the other quite young (left). By juxtaposing these two men, Courbet suggests that those who are born into poverty remain poor their entire lives. Courbet also accurately depicted their workplace. He did not sugarcoat anything. He truthfully painted the merciless soil and the harsh working conditions of the stone breakers. Courbet’s color palette of grays, whites, and browns, effectively conveys the dreary, monotonous, and mechanical nature of their work.

The sudden interest in depicting the lives of the poor and of the lower classes in society is not random. In 1848, French laborers rebelled against the bourgeois, demanding better pay and improved working conditions. Although this rebellion was put down by the army within three days, it led to large losses of life and had a significant impact on French society. Labor became a big national concern and workers were placed on center stage. In this regard, Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, painted just a year afterwards, is very à propos.

Below are a couple other favorite Realist paintings of mine…

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

Winslow Homer, Veteran in a New Field, 1865

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