Realistic painters, painters of the Realism movement, were interested in painting the world around them, modern life that can be visible and tangible to the artist. They were interested in painting the “here and now”, things from the real world. Unlike historical paintings, they did not paint anything of ethereal or mythological subject matter. Gustave Courbet, a realist painter, was only interested in painting what was in front of him. His painting, “The Stonebreakers”, shows the gritty reality of the working class. His style and subject matter fit in with the new Avant-Garde of political and artistic radicalism and found offense with the French bourgeoisie.
Courbet’s painting “The Stonebreakers” is an example of the socialistic Simonian philosophy of the Avant-Garde during the 19th century. Saint-Simonian believed that artists should use art to better society and bring about change. They should understand what’s happening in the world around them. By using art, artists can motivate change and their art can have a lasting affect on viewers and on other artists. Through the realistic depiction of the working class, Courbet is drawing the viewer’s attention to the hardship and the poverty of the two figures in the painting. The bourgeoisie would have found the subject matter offensive, because of the uprisings and social revolutions, the working class could be viewed to mean political unrest and upheaval. These men with their hammers and tattered clothing would have been seen as threatening and slightly menacing to the bourgeoisie.
Through his artistic style, which helps to emphasize and make affective his political message, Courbet also demonstrates artistic (technical) radicalism by not fitting in with the academic style, which helped to further garner negative critique by the bourgeoisie. His figures of the poor workingmen fill the foreground and a large portion of the painting. It makes the figures and subject matter very prominent and “in your face” and seen as confrontational. The viewer cannot view the painting without viewing what the painting is about. He further elevates the subject matter by painting on a large scale, 5’ by 8’, which is normally reserved for historical paintings. Historical paintings were seen by the academies as the highest art form and usually involved “noble” subject matter of historical events or subjects of classical reference. Courbet’s painting doesn’t incorporate either one and would have found offense by the bourgeoisie for Courbet’s implication that these two workingmen in his painting deserved the same elevated status as a historical painting.
Other characteristics that break away from the normal academic style include the turned away faces. The faces of both men are turned away from the viewer and they cannot be recognized. This lends a sense of ambiguity and could be seen as even more threatening to the bourgeoisie because these men seem to represent the threat that can come from any working class man. There is some hint of illusion of depth with hills that are faintly painted in the background, but then the flat color of paint in the background on the left side of the canvas seems to make the scene more flat. There is also rough application of paint which takes away some of the details of the foreground and the background, which further flattens the painting. Courbet’s rough brushstrokes, which show the texture to the paint, further separate him from the academic style of smooth brushstrokes.
Courbet’s elevation of the working class through his radical techniques of realistic prominent subject matter of poor workers, rough brushstrokes, large canvas size, disinterest in perspective, and turned faces, breaks away from the set rules of the academic style of the time, and fits with the political and social radicalism of the Avant-Garde. By glorifying the working class and expressing empathy for the oppressed, he is drawing attention to the realities of the current events and people and seeking to bring change and reform, one of the many challenges of the Avant-Garde.