Willfully refusing to follow a career path chosen by others seems to be the road to success for many artists. It was for Gustave Courbet who was sent to Paris to study law, only to pursue a career as an artist. His rural background, which exposed him to many of the realities of peasant life would shade his work, and bring him his celebrity.
Because he worked during one of the most tumultuous periods in France, the Revolutionary years of the 1840s and on, his depiction of everyday life on monumental and grand scale canvases created a whole new school of artistic thought. He broke down traditional rules of subject matter, placing an emphasis on the formal value of the painting. This would greatly influence many of the Impressionist painters later in the century.
His first successful work, done in 1844; a self-portrait entitled "Courbet with a Black Dog", was accepted by the Paris Salon. His next submission drew an enormous amount of attention as "After Dinner in Ornans" was the first painting of an intimate scene to receive large scale treatment, which had traditionally been the format only for historical or mythic scenes.
In the 1850s and 60s Courbet became known as a bit of a radical, rebelling against art juries by constructing his own pavilions from which he displayed his art at several world's fairs. This work was not well-received, and Courbet would have to rely on his smaller works to secure his financial stability.
The 1870s brought the fall of the Paris Commune, and further trouble to Courbet who was found guilty of complicity in the destruction of public art. He fled to Switzerland in 1873. Once his property had been confiscated by the French government as a method or repayment for the damages, Courbet was destroyed by his own worries and anxieties, and died in 1877.
During his life time Courbet was known as a leader of the new French realist school. His subject matter would include a wide range of subjects, including scenes of nature and the sea, but it was his work as the country's first "true socialist painter", illustrating the plight of the people or intimate genre scenes in a monumental scale really gave him his reputation.
Major exhibitions of his work still take place, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City ran a full retrospective from February to May of 2008.