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Gustave Courbet papers

 Collection 0078-MDHC

The papers of French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) cover a forty year period, and consist primarily of letters to his family from the time he was in school at Besançon in 1837 until a few months before his death in 1877. The collection also includes one letter to Gustave Courbet from an unidentified correspondent and some correspondence and business papers of his father Régis Courbet. Important subjects discussed in the letters include: Courbet's daily life, his work and personal difficulties, his paintings and exhibitions, family property, and his travels to Belgium, Holland, and Germay. Family issues appear frequently, including attempts to aid his mother's cousin Natalie Oudot Vertel after the death of her husband. Courbet also writes of important historical events including the 1848 Revolution and Second Republic, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Commune.


  • 1837-1877

Use and Access to Collection

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies or digital surrogates may be provided in accordance with Special Collections and University Archives duplication policy.

Copyright resides with the creators of the documents or their heirs unless otherwise specified. It is the researcher's responsibility to secure permission to publish materials from the appropriate copyright holder.

Archival materials may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal and/or state right to privacy laws or other regulations. While we make a good faith effort to identify and remove such materials, some may be missed during our processing. If a researcher finds sensitive personal information in a collection, please bring it to the attention of the reading room staff.


1.25 Linear Feet

Scope and Contents

The Gustave Courbet papers cover forty years, from his attendance at school in Besançon in 1837 until a few months before his death in 1877. They consist mostly of Gustave Corubet's correspondence to his family in Ornans and Flagey. There is also one letter to Courbet (possibly from the Mademoiselle Belfort who acted in locus parentis at school). In addition, there are correspondence and business papers of Régis Courbet mainly dealing with monetary support for Gustave in Paris.


Jean-Desiré Courbet was born in Ornans, Franche Comté, France, June 10, 1819, to Elénor-Régis-Jean-Joseph-Stanislas (known as Régis) Courbet, a well-to-do landowner, and Suzanne-Sylvie (known as Sylvie, sometimes spelled Silvie) Oudot. He had three younger sisters, Jeanne-Thrèse-Zoé (known as Zoé), Jeanne-Zélie-Mélodie (known as Zélie) and Bernardine-Juliette (known as Juliette). Throughout his life, Courbet would remain deeply attached to the France-Comté, a region bordering Switzerland, and its social, cultural, and geographical contexts greatly influenced his art. As a child and a young man, he attended the Petit Séminaire in Ornans. In 1837, he was sent to the Collège royal in Besançon to study law. Courbet disliked his studies and the school, and most of his letters from this period are demands to return home. The following year, his father agreed that he could attend the Académie de Besançon, studying art under Charles-Antoine Flageoulot, who had been a pupil of neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. After these two years of formal study, Courbet finally received permission from his father to live in Paris in the fall of 1839.

In Paris, Courbet studied briefly under Charles de Steuben, Père Suisse, and Père Lapin, but mostly he learned by copying works by the Old Masters in the Louvre. He considered himself an outsider and an individualist. Advocating political and social change, and despising the aristocracy and royalty, his leanings and outlook were decidedly republican and anti-authoritarian. Influenced by realist author and critic Champfleury, Courbet became known as the father of Realism, a style that rejected romantic, pretty pictures and the "ideal." He preferred to paint everyday people and life and from his own era, not historical subjects. In Paris, he developed friendships with Charles Baudelaire, Champfleury, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon among many others.

Early in his career, Courbet painted a large number of self-portraits, one of which Self Portrait with Black Dog, was his first painting accepted, in 1844, by the Paris Salon. He established a reputation with his paintings, The Stone Breakers and A Burial at Ornans. By the early 1850s, he acquired the patronage of collector Alfred Bruyas, enabling him to paint subjects of his own choosing, which included landscapes, portraits, hunting scenes, and still life. Courbet's art began to sell well, but after Louis Napoleon declared himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1851, artistic freedom suffered, and Courbet began to paint less political, more commercial works. Critics sometimes attacked Courbet's art as representing a threat to the class system. In 1855, Courbet painted perhaps his greatest work, The Painter's Studio. This allegorical work incorporated portraits of his friends Baudelaire, Bruyas, Champfleury, and Proudhon and portrayed the artist's studio as the center of society. After three of his paintings were rejected for the 1855 Exposition Universelle, Courbet set up his own exhibition adjacent to it. There, his paintings were admired by Eugène Delacroix and James McNeill Whistler, yet were still vilified by some as coarse and democratizing.

Courbet remained very politically active and opposed Napoleon III. In the late 1860s, he returned to political subjects in his painting, and, in 1870, he rejected Napoleon III's offer of the Legion of Honor. After Napoleon III's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Courbet joined the Paris Commune and was put in charge of protecting Paris's artistic monuments and museums. He advocated the removal of the Vendôme Column (a tribute to Napoleon I), although the actual destruction of the column was approved by others. Even so, after the overthrow of the Commune, Courbet stood trial for the column's destruction. The court found Courbet responsible, issued a fine, and sentenced him to prison for six months. In 1873, the Chamber of Deputies held Courbet accountable for the cost of re-erecting the column. Fearing arrest and wishing to avoid the seizure of family property and his paintings, he fled to Switzerland in July 1873. In 1877, the cost for re-erection of the column was determined to be 323,000 francs payable by Courbet in installments of 10,000 francs annually. Courbet continued to paint in Switzerland and hired assistants to help him produce enough paintings to pay the fine, sometimes signing paintings that were not completely his own. He died at La Tour-de-Peilz near Vevey, Switzerland, December 31, 1877, the day before the first payment was due.

Ultimately Courbet was a great influence on later painters including the Impressionists and many twentieth century artists. He was held in great reverence by Paul Cézanne and James McNeill Whistler. With the return of republicanism in France in the 1880s, Courbet's reputation was secure as a socially committed and modernist artist.


This collection is arranged as two series:

Series 1
Gustave Courbet Correspondence
Series 2
Régis Courbet Business Papers and Correspondence

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

The University of Maryland libraries purchased the papers of Gustave Courbet in the United States in 1979. The papers are presumably from the collection of Jean Adhémar, formerly of the Bibliothèque Nationale in France, who collected the materials with the intention of writing a biography of Courbet.

Related Material

The Letters of Gustave Courbet (1992) by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, published in both French and English, contains all of the then-known letters written by Gustave Courbet, along with indices of paintings, correspondents and others mentioned in the letters, a chronology of the artist's life, and an index. The book identifies all the sources of the published letters. The English version of the book has English translations of the letters, but not the original French versions. Other repositories with significant holdings of Courbet papers are: the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, Bibliothèque d'art et d'archéologie in Paris, and the Société des amis de Gustave Courbet in Ornans. In addition, the Pierpont Morgan Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Stanford University, Palo Alto, California; and the Musée départmental de la maison natale de Gustave Courbet, Ornans, France hold smaller collections of Courbet papers.

Processing Information

Two series were created. All items were unfolded and placed in mylar sleeves where size permitted. All items were placed in a flat box.

Guide to the Gustave Courbet papers
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Library Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives

University of Maryland Libraries
Hornbake Library
4130 Campus Drive
College Park Maryland 20742