Born in Ornans (Doubs), he went to Paris in 1839, and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse; but his independent spirit did not allow him to remain there long, as he preferred to work out his own way by the study of Spanish, Flemish and French painters. His first works, an "Odalisque," suggested by Victor Hugo, and a "Lélia," illustrating George Sand, were literary subjects; but these he soon abandoned for the study of real life.
Among other works he painted his own portrait with his dog, and "The Man with a Pipe," both of which were rejected by the jury of the Salon; but the younger school of critics, the neo-romantics and realists, loudly sang the praises of Courbet, who by 1849 began to be famous, producing such pictures as "After Dinner at Ornans" and "The Valley of the Loire." The Salon of 1850 found him triumphant with the "Burial at Ornans," the "Stone-Breakers" and the "Peasants of Flazey" His style still gained in individuality, as in "Village Damsels" (1852), the "Wrestlers," "Bathers," and "A Girl Spinning" (1852).
Though Courbet's realistic work is not devoid of importance, it is as a landscape and sea painter that he will be most honoured by posterity. Sometimes, it must be owned, his realism is rather coarse and brutal, but when he paints the forests of Franche-Comté, the "Stag-Fight," "The Wave," or the "Haunt of the Does." he is in his element. When Courbet had made a name as an artist he grew ambitious of other glory; he tried to promote democratic and social science, and under the Empire he wrote essays and dissertations.
His refusal of the cross of the Legion of Honour, offered to him by Napoleon III, made him immensely popular, and in 1871 he was elected, under the Commune, to the chamber. Thus it happened that he was responsible for the destruction of the Vendôme column. A council of war, before which he was tried, condemned him to pay the cost of restoring the column, 300,000 francs. To escape the necessity of working to the end of his days at the orders of the State in order to pay this sum, Courbet went to Switzerland in 1873, and died at La Tour du Peilz, of a disease of the liver aggravated by intemperance. An exhibition of his works was held in 1882 at the École des Beaux-Arts.
See Champfleury, Les Grandes Figures d'hier et d'aujourd' hui (Paris, 1861); Mantz, "G. Courbet," Gaz. des beaux-arts (Paris, 1878); Zola, Mes Haines (Paris, 1879); C Lemonnier, Les Peintres de la Vie (Paris, 1888).