The Stonebreakers, Gustave Courbet,1849, oil on canvas
One of the paintings representing people from the artist's hometown, Ornans, the Stonebreakers is one of Courbet's most celebrated works, although it does not survive today as it was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945. The artist chose to depict his two protagonists in a three-quarter view, hiding thus their faces. What the viewer needs to know though is clear at one glance. The picture shows two people: an old man and a boy, in the process of breaking stones at the end of a provincial road. Courbet described these two figures in a letter to his friend Champfleury as “pitiable”. The old man is for Courbet “an old machine”, “sunburned” and dressed with rags. The boy is fifteen years old according to Courbet and he is already “suffering from scurvy”. These two persons belong to the lowest part of the French rural society of the 19th century, who have most probably lost their farms from poverty. They are in this state and have no hope of ever getting out of it. The old man represents the end of the existence of the French proletariat, the boy, the beginning.
This painting along with the Burial at Ornans and The Peasants of Flagey are thought to form a coherent whole of French rural life and as large scale paintings their theme (neither historical nor heroic) scandalized the French Salon of 1850.
ReferencesRubin, Henry James. 1997. Courbet. France: Phaidon