Amelia Rawlinson, January 2018

Existence is a fickle thing. Over thousands of years, humans have explored how we came to exist and why we live. This is the first in a series of articles in which I will discuss artworks that present different perspectives on existence, covering a range of time periods. This article focuses on the atheistic depiction of existence within Gustave Courbet’s painting A Burial at Ornans (1849-1850). 

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850. Oil on canvas. 315 × 668 cm. Collection: Musée d'Orsay

In 19th century France, after the dust from the Revolution began to settle, there came, finally some liberté, égalité and fraternité for the French proletariat. The scene is in open French pastoral land - hills rolling; trees swaying in a harmonious breeze; morning dew still fresh on the grass. Looking up towards the overcast sky, there is a congregation of clergy men, peasants and gravediggers up on the cliffside. The scene is a burial at Ornans.


Being a realist painter, Courbet’s work touches upon some important aspects of existence, especially its end, death. That elusive concept that humans grapple with and often try to escape. The painting depicts a funeral being held for a relative of Courbet’s where the family and friends of the deceased stand by the grave, which takes centre stage. A crowded and awkward scene is set before the viewer; the silent respect that is expected is instead met with the chatter of the village people, the children pestering the adults, men staring off into the distance, the hum of local gossip among the women. The scene suggests little influence of any spirituality, apart from the crucifix that is held on a wooden pole that looks on silently, small and almost suffocated in the painting by the town people’s babble. There is something menacing about this Christ-like object that looms over the scene, a figure- head soon to be left behind with the boom of the industrial revolution. No one wants to look at the crucifix, even more so the grave in front of them - the reason for the gathering. Even the priest seems uninterested.


This blatant avoidance of death among the characters in the painting communicates something significant about human behaviour. This speaks about the human condition of refusing to accept death as a part of life. As Simon Critchley, discussing Heidegger on death, writes:  “…Death cannot be experienced through the deaths of others, but only through my relation to my death.” (Guardian, 13 July 2009).

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans (Detail), 1849-1850. Oil on canvas. 315 × 668 cm. Collection: Musée d'Orsay

The abject nature of death here is also evident. Despite the corpse not being painted, the viewer is aware that it is present, and Courbet leaves it up to the viewer to construct the appearance, smell and feel of the cadaver. Courbet presents the harsh reality that we are alone in this world. We then turn to ourselves and wonder where we fit in to this scene. We are not family, friends or clergy. Instead, the viewer stands within the grave that extends out of the picture plane. A depiction of a renaissance saint ascending towards the clouds this is not. Nor is it a rich benefactor, such as 13th century Enrico Scrovengi bartering his way with the Virgin and Angels into heaven. Courbet’s painting is a physical understanding that we are brought into this world alone and that we die alone. The spirituality within this painting, as mentioned earlier, is questionable. We wonder if we are looking at the scene from the deceased’s point of view, and if we are, is this the send-off that we deserve?

Perceiving one’s reality by understanding, not only the fact that everyone dies, but that it is inevitable, can ameliorate situations of a stressful nature. The phrase “life is short” is one that we constantly reference to allow ourselves to be hedonistic, whether it’s accepting a spontaneous opportunity or eating that slice of chocolate cake. “Freedom consists in the affirmation of the necessity of one's mortality. It is only in being-towards-death that one can become the person who one truly is.”(Critchley, 2009).


As Courbet shows us, accepting death grants us perspective and the understanding that what may be pressing today, won’t necessarily be tomorrow.