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Gustave Courbet’s depiction of “stonebreakers” is known as a model of realism. Realism is the school of art, popularised at the end of the 19th century, which strives to portray the lives of the common people, that which actually exists, what is real. Courbet himself said “Show me an angel and I’ll paint one.” clearly scoffing at the lavish styles of his contemporaries and predecessors. Unfortunately this defining work was destroyed during the Second World War, however, not only does this work typify realism, today it still captivates its observers, who perhaps identify with the honest yet exhausting subject. For me, this work is not itself boring, however I see that it depicts many of the trials of labour, one of which is boredom.
Both daily and profound boredom are portrayed here. His use of light is something which first strikes its audience. The entire painting is awash in a glaring white light. Their clothes are torn and they are caught in the middle of laborious tasks. One can most likely imagine working in the Summer sun; as if the task was not taxing enough, the sun blinds you and adds another dimension of exhaustion. The exhaustion slows one’s perception of time and not only is one physically tired, the work is only enough to require attention, not thought. One must imagine the life of these men. Why are they breaking and removing stones? That is apparently unimportant; it is the action which is important. The two displayed actions, breaking, and moving. They are not engaged in conversation; one might think that they speak to pass the time, however they are not facing each other and are not even seen as aware of each other’s presence. Perhaps that would simply add yet more to do, they are too mentally and physically taxed to speak. They are trapped within their own minds, free to think, though bound by their work.
And then there is the overall meaning of the painting. I am not attempting to analyse his work, particularly without a degree, however a piece of art speaks to each person, and one does not need a degree to understand that. Here, perhaps he is commenting on not only the daily trials of the poor, however what is truly lacking by all but the few elite, identity. Perhaps these are real people, with feelings and thoughts. What will happen when they die? Within three generations of each man’s death, most likely, very few people will still know of their names. Evidence of this is seen by a subtle yet important detail: their faces are hidden. They spend their lives bearing the burden of society’s lowest level of living and then they die, not to be remembered. What is their purpose, what is everyone’s purpose? The profundity of boredom is seen because they are denied by society importance in life and in death. How deeply did they think, how deeply did society think appropriate their thought? Courbet evidently felt an injustice and decided to make known their story, their remembrance in death for what was denied to them in life.