And then there’s Courbet (1819-1877), who occupies a category all his own. Founder and chief proponent of the school of Realism, his paintings shocked his contemporaries not because of their verity but because of their unsentimental depictions of the ordinary. Philosophically, his libertarian views were actually rather confused and self-serving, and his stated goal – “I have simply wished to assert the reasoned and independent feeling of my own individuality within a total knowledge of tradition” – could have led to the tritest of results in lesser hands. His formidable talents and focus as a painter, though, show in some of the most riveting canvases of the 19th century. His stunning gifts for recreating his environment in the plastic forces of paint – forces lending themselves poorly to theorizing or wall texts – inspired countless later artists, including Matisse and Picasso, who both owned paintings by the master.
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