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Courbet “The Stone Breakers”

December 7, 2010
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In Marx and Engles 1848 The Communist Manifesto, Marx claims:

Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.

In effect, Marx is likening the human workforce to the machines that they operate. After reading this, the image of Gustave Courbet’s realist painting “The Stone Breakers” which was done from 1849-1850 came to mind. Although Courbet was a socialist and looked up to Proudhon as a mentor (who Marx opposed), there is no denying that there is a similar message in The Stonebreakers to the above excerpt from The Communist Manifesto. While used to seeing painting relating to a particular revolution and what not, this has perhaps been the first instance where I have actually recognized a political theory versus a political event being exemplified in a painting.

The Stonebreakers depicts two men, one old, one young (commonly believed to be father and son) doing some of the lowliest work of the time: doing road work and breaking stones. Courbet and the Realist movement went against the norm and the wishes of the bourgeoisie and instead tried to represent le peuple; the people in their real element. Their clothes are ragged, their faces hidden, and their bodies stiff. The fact that their faces are hidden gives a sense of anonymity to the workers.

The predominant impression, as Courbet’s words suggest, is of humans acting as machines: hands, elbows, shoulders, backs, thighs, knees, ankles, and feet are all treated as alien appendages that only serve, as Ruskin wrote in The Stones of Venice (1853), to “make a tool of the creature”.

Although I recognize that there is a difference between Marxism and Socialism, Courbet and Marx were both able to recognize the effect that low-life jobs made on the proletariat class. Regardless of whether or not machines were actually being used, the working class began to both operate as machines.

*Other artists during the time of Courbet that depicted the plight of the working class in France included Daumiet (left) and Millet (below).

One Comment
  1. Molly Niedbala permalink
    December 7, 2010 12:23 PM

    What a unique and interesting post! Art in many ways expressed the ideas of political theorists. Another artist whose work emphasized socialist thought was Diego Rivera. I’ve included a link to one of his famous murals, Man at the Crossroads, below.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robotar/318833744/

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