A mere seven years before he died with his reputation in tatters, Gustave Courbet was at the height of his powers. In 1870, the painter was deeply involved in what was one of the most visionary, violent periods of French history: the Paris Commune. As the Communards took power, he was elected as a political representative, as well as the president of its Federation of Artists.
For many today, Courbet’s name is synonymous with a defining moment of the Commune’s history – the destruction of the Vendôme Column. It was an act that would define the rest of his life, resulting in his exile to Switzerland in 1873. And as we mark the 150th anniversary of the fall of the Column, there is still much to be learned from the significance of his example – and the role of artists in the social revolution in general.
The ‘Terrible Socialist’ Painter
Born in 1819 to a prosperous farming family in the rural commune of Ornans, Courbet was a self-proclaimed ‘republican by birth’. In his youth, his politics were shaped by his maternal grandfather, a veteran of the Revolution who fought with the sans-culottes. In 1840, Courbet moved to Paris, where he steadily established a reputation as a revolutionary painter, spearheading the Realist movement – a bloc of politically-charged artists revolting against idealised subjects in favour of scenes faithfully depicting contemporary life.
Realism originated in 1850, when Courbet exhibited Stonebreakers (1849) and Burial at Ornans (1849-50). These paintings, which proved to be hugely controversial, were debuted at the Salon, the annual art exhibition organised by the conservative Académie des Beaux Arts. Until then, art displayed at the Salon typically reflected the dominant interests of the bourgeoisie; instead, Courbet depicted the French proletariat.
Through these works, Courbet brought the plight of an impoverished working class into the world of the elites, forcing bourgeois audiences to engage with the uncomfortable realities of France. His subject matter was depicted on a grand scale typically reserved for the portrayal of aristocratic figures or epic historical scenes, insisting on the fundamental importance of proletarian life.
As a result, the Parisian bourgeoisie, fearful of the growing radicalism of the Parisian workers, saw Courbet’s paintings as an affront to established values. He had been marked out as not a mere aesthete, but somebody seriously engaged with the advancement of working people, and the disruption of the social order. For this, he was labelled a ‘terrible socialist’ and a ‘savage’ by his establishment enemies – pejoratives that he happily embraced to infuriate them further throughout the 1850s and 1860s.
At the onset of the war between France and the Prussian Kingdom in 1870, most painters fled Paris. But Courbet stayed, continuing his role as a piercing social critic in an energetic radical movement. Made the head of the Arts Commission in September 1870, he was also engaged in radical life in the city, including on 18 March, when the French state collapsed and working people seized power. As the Paris Commune was established, Courbet joined with great enthusiasm, building up proposals in the coming weeks to radically transform government institutions in the interests of the city’s people.
These proposals included ambitious plans to change the way the arts were organised – something of great focus for Courbet. In early April 1871, he called on his fellow artists to assemble and discuss a plan for the arts under the Commune. This meeting, which was co-organised with Eugène Pottier (later author of the lyrics of L’Internationale) and involved around 400 artists and artisans, offered core revolutionary proposals: for artists’ control of art, and for access to art and culture as a right for all. As a result, the Federation of Artists was founded, with Courbet as president.
The Federation aimed to substantially reform the artistic life of Paris. Their ambitious manifesto called for the freedom of artistic expression, equality within the arts, and an end to government interference in art institutions. It also included a specific demand for the equal rights of female artists who, while technically permitted to submit work, were frequently excluded from the Salon due to the institution’s conservative, chauvinistic management committee.
The implications of the manifesto were significant. With the authority of the Salon no longer imposing strict conditions on artistic style and subject matter, artists could assert their personal freedoms through stylistic innovation for the first time. That these proposals played a significant role in the development of modern art movements after the Commune is a testimony to the success of the Federation’s progressive ideas.
Compared to other radical changes made by the Commune, the restructuring of arts institutions may seem minor. However, as Kristin Ross explains in Communal Luxury, these proposals entailed ‘not only a complete reconfiguration of our relation to art’, but also ‘to labour, social relations, nature, and the lived environment as well’. Art was essentially decommodified: no longer only created or enjoyed by a select and privileged few, but something to be produced and loved by the many.
On 30 April, at the height of the Commune’s power, Courbet expressed his enthusiasm about all that was being achieved. ‘Paris’, he wrote, ‘is a true paradise! No police, no nonsense, no exaction of any kind, no arguments! If only it could stay like this forever… it is a beautiful dream.’ Unfortunately, Courbet’s almost prophetic notion that things could not last came true. His ‘beautiful dream’ became nothing short of a nightmare, starting with the destruction of the Vendôme Column.
The Vendôme Column
The Vendôme Column was a monument erected in 1810 by Napoleon I in Place Vendôme in Paris to celebrate his army’s victory at Austerlitz. Its destruction by Communards in May 1871 is frequently attributed to Courbet, but the truth is more ambiguous.
In his role as the head of the Arts Commission, Courbet was tasked with the protection of monuments and artworks in Paris amidst a turbulent political landscape. Almost immediately, questions over the fate of the Vendôme Column arose. The suggestion of removing or destroying this symbol of imperial power was not new. The monument was much contested, hated by many who saw it as a symbol of oppression and dictatorial power, and in his 1852 pamphlet The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx even predicted its fall.
On 14 September 1870, Courbet wrote to the French government, proposing that the column be taken down, and adding that:
In as much as the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Défense government will authorise him to disassemble this column.
Invested also in its preservation for cultural posterity, Courbet additionally suggested that the column’s parts be moved to a more appropriate place, such as the Hôtel des Invalides, a military hospital in Paris.
Although the demolition of the Vendôme Column was a matter of serious discussion from September 1870, it did not become a serious issue until after the proclamation of the Commune in 1871. On 4 April 1871, political activist Jules Vallès published an article in the socialist newspaper Cri du Peuple calling for the column’s immediate destruction. Eight days later, on 12 April, acting on a proposal from leading communard, Félix Pyat, the Commune officially authorised the column’s demolition. On 16 May, the column was toppled in front of a large, jubilant crowd.
When the decree to demolish the Column was issued, Courbet was not a member of the Commune, having been elected four days after the authorisation. Although likely present when the column fell, Courbet’s sole responsibility for its destruction is dubious – but he was arrested and charged as the architect of its demolition.
On 21 May—six days after the Column fell—troops entered Paris, marking the start of a week-long period of repression: the Semaine Sanglante (‘Bloody Week’). Just over a fortnight later, at 11pm on the 7 June, Courbet was arrested at a friend’s house where he had been hiding. On 14 August, he was tried at Versailles and prosecuted for ‘complicity in the destruction of monuments’. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fined 500 francs. After serving much of his time in Sainte-Pélagie prison in Paris, his ill health saw his release on 30 December to a Neuilly clinic, where he spent the remainder of his sentence on medical parole.
But although Courbet’s sentence was completed on 2 March 1872, the newly restored bourgeois government continued to persecute him. Banned from exhibiting in the Salons and his works permitted only to be displayed in private galleries—which still risked being seized—his career in France was over. In 1873, the National Assembly voted to re-erect the Vendôme Column – and that Courbet would pay for its reassembly.
Between 1874-77, his case was reopened, and he alone was declared legally responsible for the destruction of the Vendôme Column. He was ordered to pay the total cost of its reconstruction: an impossible sum of 323,091 francs. Throughout this period, the state widely normalised his persecution via propagandistic illustrations, masquerading as ‘satire’, which implicitly framed Courbet as the sole perpetrator. The repeated association ensured that Courbet and the column’s fate were indelibly linked for years to come: a connection that lingers today.
Except for a self-portrait in prison and some sketches, Courbet painted nothing directly related to the Paris Commune. However, several works from 1872-77 have clear autobiographical dimensions that can only be understood through these events. These paintings consist largely of still life subjects, ranging from arrangements of fruit starting to rot to compositions of fish dying on riverbanks shortly after being caught.
It is hard not to see these works as ruminations on the corruption and violence witnessed by Courbet and his fellow communards. In these images of bloodied and fatally wounded fish, one can see allusions to the bodies of the dying communards atop the barricades. In The Trout (1872), which poignantly bears the inscription ‘In vinculis faciebat’ (‘It was made in chains’), Courbet invests the motif of the captured and injured animal with the memory of his own imprisonment and suffering.
Reflecting upon the significance of the Paris Commune, the socialist artist William Morris perhaps best summarised its continuing importance for us today. In an 1887 speech, he spoke of the duty of socialists to celebrate the Commune ‘both enthusiastically and intelligently’ in the face of the ‘dull gulf of lies, hypocritical concealments and false deductions which is called bourgeois history’.
It is as much a call to action as it is a call to celebration. Morris reminds us of the difficulties we still face with establishment-based media similarly poised to shape history through obscuration. The destruction of the Vendôme Column brings to mind the recent discourse around acts of cultural resistance, initiated by the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last July. The parallels between these two events demonstrate the powerful role that arts and visual culture continue to play in reinforcing systems of oppression and facilitating acts of liberation.
The Communards of 1871 understood that cultural reform was integral to political change. They identified, as we should today, that the battle of the proletariat is as much within culture as it is within institutional foundations, and that artists must be reimagined as militants in the revolutionary process. We would be remiss to overlook these lessons. The fight for social justice and equality today lies within our culture, as much as it does the halls of Westminster – and artists must be reminded and empowered to develop that fight.