Gustave Courbet, a self-declared Realist, rejected the inherent sentimentality of the earlier Romantics. Courbet's interest in portraying things as they really appear, together with his non-academic orientation, place him in the front rank of the quest for realism that was the premise for much of the artistic activity during the second half of the nineteenth century. Abandoning the study of law for art, Courbet arrived in Paris from his native Ornans in 1840. Essentially self-taught, he learned the rudiments of his profession from studying the works of Caravaggio in the Louvre. In 1847 Courbet made a trip to Holland, which strengthened his belief that painters should work from the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals, and the other Dutch masters had done.
Courbet, like his contemporary Jean-FranÃ§ois Millet, was affected by the events of 1848. Courbet himself later asserted that from 1848 on, he concentrated on "realistic" subjects. His efforts were more consciously designed to arouse controversy than Millet's had been. He coined the term realism to define his interest in the actual circumstances of his day. Despite his realism, however, Courbet controlled his images, underscoring the dramatic and symbolic nature of his subjects so that his paintings had an intellectual as well as a visual component.
Exhibiting The Stonebreakers in the Salon of 1850-51, together with a portrayal of a family funeral at Ornans and a scene of peasants returning from a fair, Courbet achieved the notoriety he so desired. He openly declared his socialist ideals but also affirmed that his subject matter had as much to do with his interest in "real and existing things" as with politics.
Criticised for deliberately adopting a cult of ugliness and for attacking the established social standards, he was also praised by such social reformers as his friend the social theorist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who saw in The Stonebreakers a visual condemnation of capitalism and its potential for greed. When Courbet's work was rejected for the Paris International Exhibition in 1855, he took the novel approach of opening his own pavilion.
Still at the centre of political activity in the 1870s, he was arrested and imprisoned in 1871 when the Commune he supported fell. The following year he was released, and he moved to Switzerland, spending the remainder of his life in exile and painting the rough Swiss terrain in new, experimental ways.