In Gustave Courbet’s 1849 canvas An After Dinner at Ornans we see the elevation of the humble peasant life to the level of a subject worthy of a large canvas at a time when classical academic art still had a stranglehold on prevailing taste in France. Not only in subject matter but in style is this picture unassuming.
We see no pyramidal or frieze-like (with figures and objects drawn on the same plane across the space) composition here but a seeming jumble of an arrangement or perhaps rather a lateral wave between the men relaxing after their meal. This is not theatrical or staged but is informal.
In addition, there are in the men’s attitudes quite differing degrees of attention paid to the violin player – the elderly man on the left, said to be Gustave Courbet’s own father, slumps half-asleep. The man to his left pays full attention to the music resting his head on his hand. The man to his left with his back to us seems to divide his attention between listening and smoking while the player is completely absorbed in his playing.
The man with his back to us is central in the picture, showing Courbet in defiance of artistic tradition by denying us the sight of a central character’s face and denying us an invitation.
Gustave Courbet’s An After Dinner at Ornans is in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France.