"Mister Courbet is a realist, I am a realist; since the critics are saying it, I let them say it. But, to my great shame, I confess that I have never studied the code containing the rules by which the newcomer is permitted to produce realist works."
Champfleury, On Realism, Letter to Madame Sand, September 1855.
As a contemporary of early photography, Courbet used this medium in his work, notably to paint the nude woman behind him in The Studio, and again in Chillon Castle. Yet the painter's intentions were a long way from photographic mimicry. He wished to put forward a personal vision of the real, a desire which at times his contemporaries found difficult to understand.
Several scandals marked Courbet's career, but these episodes also enabled him to maintain his reputation, and did not prevent either his recognition or his commercial success. Thus, while proving that success in no way curbed his creative freedom, Courbet maintained his position at the forefront of the artistic stage.
Fundamentally, Courbet was opposed to the academic teaching of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, whose rules he refused to accept. He moved away from mythological or historical subjects, and rooted his work in his own era, painting what he saw around him.
In 1878, Champfleury, who championed the cause of Realism, spoke very highly of Daumier, an all round artist better known for his caricatures than for his painting and sculpture. Like Courbet, Daumier was "a painter of his time". But he liked to portray specific social or political events, as in La Rue Transnonain (1834), or produce allegorical works like La République (1848).
Courbet, on the other hand, did not express his firm Republican convictions directly in his paintings. Even if he portrayed the working classes, he did not feel that his art had to be didactic or a vehicle for propaganda. Nevertheless, Courbet did produce a drawing of the 1848 barricades for the magazine Le salut public, produced by his friends Baudelaire and Champfleury, taking much of his inspiration from Delacroix.
As sons of prosperous farmers, and painters of rural life, the careers of Millet and Courbet at first followed a similar path – Millet's A Winnower (1866-1868) and Courbet's The Wheat Sifters (1854) – but they moved apart over time.
Nicknamed "The Correggio of Sorrow", Octave Tassaert, painter of An Unhappy Family (1849) was admired by the Romantic writer Théophile Gautier, who draws a contrast between this Realist and Courbet. According to the poet and critic, Tassaert "paints unhappiness not abjection, banality not ugliness, the people not the rabble".
As a Catholic and a fatalist, Tassaert did not call the social order into question. With The Stone Breakers, Courbet on the other hand denounced the condition of these men, who were forced to do a job as difficult as it is absurd. For the painter, they represented "the complete expression of human misery".
(1850) by Alexandre Antigna, is a large painting of a family in distress. This domestic drama without historical context can be interpreted as a metaphor for the wretched condition of the working class. This type of scenario is not seen in Firemen running to a Fire painted by Courbet in 1850-1851.
Rosa Bonheur's animal paintings, as with her paintings of peasants Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) , might place her nearer to Courbet. But Rosa Bonheur, who enjoyed both critical and commercial success, ignored the social and political reality of the time.
In a painting entitled What is called vagrancy, Alfred Stevens showed soldiers taking a mother and her children to prison for the crime of vagrancy. Emperor Napoleon III was so moved by this painting exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition that he decided that henceforth vagrants should be taken to the Conciergerie Prison in a closed carriage.