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The Water Mill

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1864, 75×100 cm • Oil, Canvas

Description of the artwork «The Water Mill»

There are at least two things everyone knows about French artist Gustave Courbet. He has been shocking the audience and annoying his colleagues with his artwork. And he is the author of “The Origin of the World”, a detailed portrait of female genitals. It seems that the inference is clear: people hated Gustave Courbet for the impertinent frankness in his works, weird from the 20th century perspective.

Well, they were not actually.

Courbet painted his renowned «The Origin of the World» on commission to a Turkish diplomat. For 120 years, this canvas was not available for the wide audience, and even in private collections it was covered by decent landscapes. The painting was displayed at the exhibition for the first time only in 1998 and made a real scandal in 21st century after Facebook blocked a page of a Frenchman who shared the picture in the social network. He has even proved in the court that it was not a pornography but a masterpiece.

Courbet irritated the public by a pretty usual realism, as we see it in this landscape. He annoyed people at his desire to paint what he saw, not idealizing and decorating the truth. Courbet was sure that “the beauty is in the nature itself”, and the task of an artist was to notice and reconstruct it without any distortion. “I've never seen an ugly thing in my life,” if these words haven't already been said by Constable, they would certainly have been mentioned by Courbet.

As a great artist, Gustave Courbet was ahead of the time. Back then, it was still considered good manners to paint goddesses, nymphs, and noble antique ruins, but he instead used his canvases for the lowliest rural landscapes – rough and vulgar, having nothing in common with the idea of what the fine art should be devoted to. Even when Courbet switched to a classical subject in «The Bathers», the painting made a scandal. People said than Napoleon III was so infuriated with the canvas at the Salon 1853, that he has beaten it in rage with a whip. At first glance, there is nothing new to the picture, similar fleshy girls were painted by Rubens centuries ago. However, those women had a noble blue blood shining through their thin skin. And Courbet’s girl had dirty peasant heels instead.

Courbet was proud of being honest in painting. His clarity even affected his technique. Before him, artists painted canvases smooth in texture, it was impossible to detect their brushstrokes. In contrast, Courbet did not hide his work and usually used of a palette knife instead of a paintbrush (it’s a tool similar to a spatula for applying paint onto canvas). His contemporaries were so sick of his honesty that they’ve made him the main character of numerous caricatures. For instance, Thomas Couture, an academic classical painter popular at the time, devoted his picture to Courbet and entitled it “Realist” – the artist paints a portrait of a pig head sited on a sculptured head of an antique god. To bring the message to the public for sure, the caricature was provided with a clarifying line: “Author of this picture avenges all his sufferings endured by him from the invasion of rough, aggressive realism.”

Courbet, at his turn, did not remain in his debt for long, he made fun of those who preferred fantasies to realism. He allegedly asked Eduard Manet who depicted angels on one of his paintings: “Have you ever seen the angels to be sure that they have butts?”

Author: Natalia Kandaurova
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About the artwork
Subject and objects: Landscape
Style of art and technique: Realism, Oil

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