Gustave Courbet

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A Burial at Ornans

Courbet, Gustave

Last Updated: Jan-25-1999
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas


In this huge painting, Courbet depicts the funeral scene of an ordinary citizen of the village. The open grave at the center front of the painting is surrounded by a great S-curve of pallbearers, priest and altar boys, gravedigger, family and friends in mourning. The composition is, in many ways, classical, yet the subject matter-- the burial of an unknown villager--is starkly different from the grandiloquent depictions of famous historical events or wealthy, powerful people so common in contemporary 19th century painting. This deliberate and radical choice of subject is also reflected in the title of the painting, which only locates the burial by town and not person.

The grouping of mourners and attendants follows the horizon or distant cliffs--no one's head extends into the sky. Only the crucifix, held by a religious attendant, is outlined by the muted tones of the sky. The earthbound nature of life is thus emphasized, as the figures are framed by dirt and rock.

Courbet instills the human touch into his painting. An altar boy gazes with a look of innocence up at a pall bearer. A young girl peers around the skirts of her elders. Several grief-stricken women clutch handkerchiefs to their faces.

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