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.