At the end of summer 1849, Courbet started work on his first monumental painting. He wanted to make it his "statement of principle" and made this clear by calling the work Painting of Human Figures, the History of a Burial at Ornans. He took his inspiration from group portraits of Dutch civic guards in the 17th century while the sumptuous blacks recall Spanish art. The nuances of colour in the dark greens and dull greys produces an austere tone, the thick, robust technique gives the people and the natural elements density and weight. The rigorous frieze-like composition and the gaping grave strewn with bones invite us to think about the human condition.
Courbet's approach was radically innovative at the time: he used a canvas of dimensions usually reserved for history painting, a "noble" genre, to present an ordinary subject, with no trace of idealisation, which cannot pretend to be a genre scene either.
At the Salon in 1850-1851, many people decried "the ugliness" of the people, and the ordinariness of the whole scene. Among the few admirers of the painting, one critic prophesied that it would remain "the Herculean pillars of realism in modern history". The very subject of the painting has been reinterpreted. At first regarded as anticlerical, it was finally believed that, in a composition dominated by Christ on the cross, bringing together the clergy, a mayor and a Masonic judge, surrounded by men and women from all walks of life, it was the idea of "universal understanding" which prevailed, a constant preoccupation in the 19th century and for the 1848 generation in particular.