Many of the people, especially the youth, tend to look up to those who have already achieved great successes in their fields. This applies to the artists who admire particular painters and want to learn from them directly. When the students of the traditional School of the Fine Art wrote a letter to Gustave Courbet urging him to open his art school and teach them there, they were aiming to learn from the best and get the knowledge from one of the most talented artists of their time. However, despite their dissatisfaction with the traditional school, Courbet was unable to help them. In an open letter, he refused to open any art schools whatsoever stating that art could not be taught and enforced academically and also explained his stance on imagination, painting, and the main ideas toward the epoch. The current paper sums up Courbet’s chief ideas on painting, imagination in art, and teaching. Moreover, the paper observes the influence which this letter shed on Courbet’s understanding of realism.
When it comes to painting, the main idea of an artist is to portray real objects. Artists should not fall into the sphere of abstract; on the opposite, they should devote their time to painting concrete things. An artist can only choose the form and the way to portray a real thing, and this is the limit of the imagination in realism. Courbet also adds that artists should find beauty in nature which conveys all of the things worth painting. They should not try to practice their skills in so-called historical art. Courbet does not believe that the latter is possible because everything is contemporary, and artists always create based on the epoch they live in. Therefore, copying the past would be degrading and contradictory to the art as Courbet envisions it.
The artist also speaks about teaching. He states that it is impossible to teach art through schools, and there is no effect of studying in art schools in general. That is the reason he himself would never start a school like that, because the art is individual and depends on the capacity of a person to use his or her talents to portray the reality in which he or she lives. This brings us back to the stance on the imagination because artists still have to portray only real things through their own perspective. The painter also adds that although teaching art is impossible, he may communicate and advice some of his collaborators, or equals in art, about his artistic experience. In other words, he suggests that it would be impossible to teach an inexperienced students unless they start creating themselves; and only after they advance, it will be possible to exchange ideas with them as with equals.
The letter is a very powerful work when it comes to describing the author himself. Courbet is being very honest and open about his ideas on art, and it reveals his stance on realism as well. The painter believes that realism is the way to convey the ideas and objects of the contemporary time into the paintings (Courbet 35). In other words, the quality of the work will definitely depend on the author’s capacities, but he or she will have to respond to the surroundings and create something in the spirit of the epoch. Viewing realism as such, Courbet excludes any possibility of copying the previous historical styles or looking into history for an inspiration. According to him, it will be a fake since the contemporary artists will still adjust and transform the historical background into something closer to their time, so they just create fake reproductions which are alien to the past or present. Therefore, Courbet suggests focusing on realism as a method of fixating the world around as it is.
The author’s stance on realism also limits imagination greatly. Courbet does not refuse the artists’ right to imagine, however, he suggests that artists should only portray real and visible things. In other words, realism does not leave the room for dreams and other things which cannot be seen or explained with words. The painter believes that artists should not paint the things that are non-existent, and the limit of their imagination is to choose an approach toward painting the real thing which is to transmit the natural beauty in the most effective way possible. Courbet believes that realism is about finding the beauty in nature; thus, all artists should pay close attention to it, get inspired and create according to the ideas which exist in the contemporary society.
The works created by Courbet are good reflections of his beliefs because he has transmitted his stance on realism into them. For instance, the work titled Portrait of Jo shows author’s loyalty to being realistic while portraying his contemporaries. The viewers see close attention to the details, the beauty of the composition, and the realistic vision of the person looking into the mirror while the painter is creating a portrait of her. The realism of the picture strengthens the arguments the painter made in his letter. Other examples include the landscapes the painter created like Sea Coast in Normandy where the nature is depicted through realistic perception, and the author manages to grasp the full beauty of the vision before him. The nudes, the author has created, also contribute to the ideas he expressed in the letter because they attempt to show the human body the way it is and present nakedness and human flaws in the way they actually are. One of the most realistic pieces Courbet created, Fox in the Snow, is a good example of the painter trying to find the beauty in a natural occurrence as well as portraying it vividly and lively so his audience can grasp and feel what the author has been feeling while observing the fox.
The works by Courbet do not contain fantastical creatures or visions from his dreams; on the contrary, they serve as a diary of the society he lived in and the vivid portrayal of the ideas in society which affected the painter. Therefore, the artist’s painting serve as a strong argument toward his stance on realism, teaching art and the role of an artist in the contemporary society.
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