Gustave Courbet was born on June 10, 1819, into a prosperous farming family. He went to Paris in 1839. An independent spirit, he developed his own style by studying Spanish, Flemish and French painters and painting copies of their work.
A trip to the Netherlands in 1847 strengthened Courbet's belief that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals, and the other Dutch masters had done.
Among his early works, he painted his own portrait with his dog, and The Man with a Pipe, both of which the Paris Salon jury rejected. However, the younger critics, the Neo-romantics and Realists, loudly sang his praises, and by 1849 Courbet was becoming well known, producing pictures for which the Salon actually awarded him a medal.
One of Courbet's most important works is Burial at Ornans, a canvas recording an event which he witnessed in September 1848. The painting caused a fuss with critics and the public. It is an enormous work, measuring 10 by 22 feet (3.1 by 6.6 meters), depicting a prosaic ritual on a scale which previously would have been reserved for a religious or royal subject. Eventually the public grew more interested in the new Realist approach, and the lavish, decadent fantasy of Romanticism lost popularity. The artist well understood the importance of this painting; as Courbet said: "The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism."
Towards the end of the 1860s, Courbet painted a series of increasingly erotic works, culminating in The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) in 1866, depicting female genitalia, and The Sleepers, featuring two women in bed. While banned from public display, the works increased his notoriety.
On 14 April 1870, Courbet established a "Federation of Artists" for the free and uncensored expansion of art. The group's members included André Gill, Honoré Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugène Pottier, Jules Dalou, and Édouard Manet.
His refusal of the cross of the Legion of Honour offered to him by Napoleon III made him immensely popular with those who opposed the current regime, and in 1871 under the revolutionary Paris Commune he was placed in charge of all the Paris art museums and saved them from looting mobs.
For his insistence in executing the Communal decree for the destruction of the Vendôme Column, he was designated as responsible for the act and accordingly sentenced on 2 September 1871 by a Versailles court martial to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs.
In 1873, the newly elected president Mac-Mahon wanted to resurrect the Column, and Courbet was singled out to pay the expenses. He then took refuge in Switzerland to avoid bankruptcy. On 4 May 1877, the estimate of the costs was finally established: 323.091 fr 68 cent. Courbet was allowed to pay the fine in yearly installments for the next 33 years, until his 91st birthday.
Courbet died on 31 December 1877, age 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking exactly one day before the payment of the first installment was due.