Le Désespéré: A Realist Art That Portrays Early Rejection

Le Désespéré is one among the most famous realist self-portrait of the 19th century. The art depicts Gustave Courbet & his early rejection.

Le Desespere

In a matter of nine characters, the word rejection has the ability to destroy any mental state with the power of sudden persuasiveness; despite building perseverance and becoming capable of pulling mountains, there is no such person among us who did not break down at least once when they faced rejection. An excellent book from Ancient India describes it as the first step towards building success when taken seriously. Do you feel somewhere inside that it correlates with your life appropriately? You won’t believe me that in a time of world crisis, the Wuhan-Virus epidemic, I perceived hundreds of rejections in different ways. And trust me, it is the worst feeling in the entire world that you lay your eyes on any opportunity, and nothing opens up for you. And that’s when I think humanity plays wonders with your mind. I have read around 50-60 books to resolve my mental issues while getting fascinated with art and paintings during that time. I saw that some legendary artists had faced similar situations or much worst what we think and guess what they did. They fought back. Among them, whose artwork I loved, was Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Gustave Courbet’s The Desperate Man. Yes, there are thousands of artists like Frida Kahlo, Paolo Veronese, Van Gogh and Da Vinci, but the former are some of the paintings, which mirrored my emotions and became my favourites. Through this article, I have initiated an analysis of the artwork, Le Désespéré, through reliable and accurate information obtained from credible sources. You have to keep up with me, till the last to know about it. So let us start.

General Information.

1. Artist Statement.

“I have studied the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice. I no longer wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial goal of ‘art for art’s sake’. No! I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality.”

2. Subject Matter.

This painting surprisingly depicts the artist’s self-portrait as a momentary pause in time. Responding in a singular moment, the subject clearly exaggerates the timing with wide-open eyes, blushed cheeks, and a fine moustache.

Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait, Le Désespéré, 1845 - 1847

3. Artist.

Gustave Courbet painted this composition. Born on 10 June 1819 in Ornace, France, he was the son of Eléonor-Régis, a prosperous farmer, and Sylvie Courbet. Gustave studied at Collège Royal and the college of fine arts at Besançon, after which he moved to Paris in 1841. He never wished to be a lawyer, thereby confronting his father that he wanted to be a painter. His father supported him financially and emotionally, and due to this financial freedom obtained, Gustave devoted himself entirely to the arts. At first, he gained technical proficiency by creating a copy of pictures of Diego Velasquez and Jose de Ribera. Furthermore, several paintings were rejected by the Salon due to his bold subjects and unconventional styles. However, he never romanticized his subjects, instead showed viewers the reality through grating emotions. He always said that realism is much more about emphasizing suitable emotions, which gave history and artists a new philosophy and inspiration. He made a place in the art critics’ hearts (after his death) by succeeding in ridding his artworks of artistic clichés, contrived idealism, and timeworn models.

4. Date.

The composition dates back to the year 1844-45.

5. Provenance.

The artwork dates back to 1843, when Gustave was approaching his mid-20s. You see that during the 1840s, Courbet emphasized and painted a substantial number of self-portraits. In fact, you can put it into plain words that Gustave was his favourite subject, and self-portraits were his adorable preferred genre. I will let you know about the entire history of the painting in a later section.

6. Location.

The painting is on exhibition in the Private Collection of BNP Paribas, France.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting, The Desperate Man, has a medium oil on canvas. With a desperate expression, Courbet made his self-portrait in the Romanticism style, suggesting a temperament susceptible to melancholy.

ArtistJean Désiré Gustave Courbet
Year Paintedc. 1844-45 (Source: Courbet’s Realism by Fried, Michael)
MediumOil on canvas
MovementSelf-Portraiture, Realism
Dimensions45 cm x 55 cm
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Private collection of BNP Paribas, France

Le Désespéré | Fast Knowledge

Le Désespéré, or The Desperate Man, is a Romanticism period artwork by Gustave Courbet. Painted in 1844-45, the oil on canvas self-portrait is a momentary pause that gives an insight into the mind of a struggling young artist.

Now, that you know a brief introduction about the painting, let us understand it in detail.

In-Depth Description of The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet.

About the Artist: Gustave Courbet.

Francois Sabatier, early in 1851, one of the many critics of the Salon, said about Gustave,

“M.Courbet has made a place for himself in the current French School of painting in the way that a cannonball lodges itself in a wall.”

Gustave Courbet was one of the most significant painters of the nineteenth century who mastered realism with grace. As a founder of the new movement, realism, Gustave tended to replace all the obsolescent portrayals of gods and nymphs with honest and earthy pictures of contemporary French peasants and townsfolks. Exerting a profound character, he had a curious combination of obvious faults and simple virtues.

A picture of French painter Gustave Courbet

Let us discuss the artist through a short biographical index. As I already told you about his birthdate, let me tell you his full name, which was Jean Desire Gustave. His father, Eleonor Regis Jean Joseph Stanislas Courbet, was a well-off landowner with fields and vineyards in the village nearby to Ornanas. Besides, Gustave, he had four daughters. The first, Bernardine Julie Clarice, died at an early age when Gustave was fifteen. He was much affected by her death as she was close to her. His other three sisters were Jeanne Therese Zoe, Jeanne Zelie Melaide and Bernardine Juliette. In the childhood of the artist, he used to play in the family vineyards and enjoyed vigorous physical activities like swimming with his sisters. His earlier education tells us that he was bright in general and in education and formal art. When he was fourteen, he took lessons from a neoclassicist painter, who built his foundation to put his artworks. 

When he was twenty-one, he moved to Paris to grow his art. Instead of joining any studio of academic celebrities or enrolling in Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he took a few lessons from lesser-known teachers and copied Caravaggio and Rubens in the Louvre. Copying the classical paintings again and again, he had finally accomplished the secrets to mastering the drawing on his own. And this way, through his independent studies, he finally modelled Realism. 

As you understand the early foundations of Gustave’s art through his brief life, let us now move to the provenance section, which will enable us to know what exactly inspired him to paint The Desperate Man. 

History and Background of the Artwork.

The painting is the most mysterious and singular of the entire series of Gustave Courbet’s youthful self-portraits. Dr Paul Collin, who attended his last days at the Tour-de-Peilz, commented rightly on the painting,

“a painting, representing Courbet with a desperate expression and which for this reason, he had entitled Despair. Painted in 1845, the painting was exhibited in Geneva last year.”

Now, there is one point to note the artwork date is not rightly known. Though the canvas represents it as 1841, the artist’s physical appearance and the technical prowess depicted in the painting show that it might be executed in 1845. 

Various commentators of Gustave emphasized that he had a generosity and lust for life, yet his self-portraits sometimes had severe signs of despondency and melancholy.

Art Critique des Cars emphasized the artist’s self-representation as the accurate rendering of his state of mind. Here in this artwork, Courbet expressed his despair during his times of professional disappointment. There was a past incident and a few words by Courbet himself to give you an entire background of the artwork. It was a time when without success, and the cold attitude of the Jury made Courbet say to the Castagnary, 

“Am I making others suffer the despair that I did during my youth?”

You can see that the rejection of Gustave’s work by the Salon due to his bold subjects made him draw such a painting. It resembles a subjective and internal reality of the Courbet, where he showed his imminent downfall. 

In 1845, though he was exhausted by his efforts to finish his submission to the Salon, he wrote for himself as,

“very tired, physically and mentally, and unable to work for the moment.”

The authors who described the painting wrote single-handedly that the artwork was composed in a

“period of hypochondria due to overwork and hardship.”

Many earlier accounts state that his financial difficulties continued till 1850. 

Gustave wrote to his patron, Alfred Bruyas,

“I hide, deep down, grief, bitterness, and a sorrow that clings to my heart like a vampire.”

Thus, the singularity of The Desperate Man will be all the more surprising to us, and we will find ourselves returning to the earliest emotions of the artist’s youth, marked by triumphant Romanticism.

Understanding the Meaning of Le Désespéré.

With the context of the painting in place, figuring out what the artwork means isn’t complex. A self-portrait is a facile art genre to understand, as no other art form can convey that much information about the artist. Courbet, who has a complex character is best understood by his quotes when analyzed with his artworks. You already know it from the previous section, so let us move forward to the meaning of the composition. 

It is worth placing The Desperate Man (Le Désespéré) in the context of the artist’s other self-portraits to understand more about him, The Wounded Man, Sculptor and Mad Man with Fear.

Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait, The Wounded Man
The Sculptor, Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait
Mad man with fear self-portrait by Gustave Courbet

Although I am not taking up a lot of time by discussing other artworks, there is a connection between the sitting conditions in the above paintings. On page 62 of Courbet’s Realism by Fried, Michael says, 

“I suggested that an affinity exists between the sitter’s condition in the two works (The Wounded Man & The Sculptor), an affinity I went on to describe in terms of a simultaneous extinguishing and dilation of ordinary waking consciousness.” 

Therefore, the question arises, which artwork is more significant and why? 

You must know briefly that the first glance of Le Desespere can strike an extreme emotion and take out your words to communicate, whereas, The Wounded Man and The Sculptor manifestly uncommunicates with the viewer.

Now, we know that The Desperate Man portrays the artist’s piece of mind during his struggling time when he was unable to achieve academic respect despite his terrifically outstanding expressive work. It is an attempt to capture the momentary effect of the expression, just like Rembrandt did in his series of fetched self-portraits of the 1630s. So when you involve in it for an extended period, it would seem less plausible in action, creating a sense of the dramatic situation. 

Subject Matter of The Desperate Man.

Le Désespéré portrays the young Courbet with a terrific expression. The eyes of the subject are wide and staring with a flared nostril and open mouth, suspecting despair or shock. One hand of Courbet lies on his head while the other pulls his hair in a looming manner, directly towards the beholder. Instead of capturing an expressive effect, the desperate man painting portrays a momentary pause, in a way that is the first reaction to any situation or thought. There is an absence of physical proximity, which explains the arbitrary lighting, calling attention to the man’s nose and elbow. The loosely tied greyish-blue scarf has a softening effect on the composition. 

The Desperate Man Analysis

Notice the kind of anxiety while you see the position of his hands over the head with tints of panic. Sometimes, all of a sudden, when things go wrong, we do this self-explanatory pose by chance as a response to our current situation. There is a strong sense of connection through the artist’s eyes when a viewer sees it at first glance. You can see the precision of Le Désespéré through the hand veins, stiffening muscles, folds and details over the white shirt of it. 

Formally Analysing Gustave Courbet’s Le Désespéré.

1. Line.

The painting has a strong and fine line boundary over the self-portrait. In the composition, the viewer’s eyes first meet the eyes of the subject and then travel around the rest of the painting. This painting is oriented horizontally, implying that the landscape continues left and right beyond the picture plane.

2. Light and Value.

In this painting, one can witness that there is a generous usage of lights and shadows to nurture the impact and its emotion. It has a lighter brightness and a higher contrast, showcasing the clear darker parts through shadows. It represents a dark interior scene with a light coming from the left of the composition.

 Light and Value of Le Désespéré

3. Colour Analysis.

In this picture, the subject has a whitish-creme skin tone with some pink blush on his cheeks. The brownish-black beard and hair look beautiful more than a reality. Furthermore, even the eyeballs of the Courbet are well-proportionate and beautifully coloured. The off-white shirt with a greyish-blue scarf looks astounding on the subject.

There are smooth lines and perfection in draping the details of the subject. Furthermore, the lighting on the left side illuminates the elbows, shoulders, and forehead with a shady reflection over the rest of the face, which is very captivating.


Learning through such a fleetingly period is more than a privilege, that we had today. Le Désespéré by Gustave Courbet is a masterpiece among his self-portraiture, holding a special place over his extended works throughout his lifetime. Tell me what throbbed in your heart and how you relate to the painting in the comments below. I promise to see you soon!

Now that you know about Gustave, let us move to the background of his composition, Le Désespéré.


1. Gustave Courbet by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

2. Courbet and the Modern Landscape by Mary G Morton.

3. Gustave Courbet by Gerstle Mack.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted Le Désespéré?

French painter Gustave Courbet created Le Désespéré, one of the crucial 19th-century self-portraits to portray the grating emotions inside the mind of a young artist facing rejection, evidently himself.

When was Le Désespéré painted?

Gustave Courbet painted Le Désespéré in 1843.

What does The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet mean?

The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet portrays the artist’s mind during his struggling period and when despite his outstanding expressive work, he was unable to achieve academic respect. The art is a fantastic representation of realism and is meant to strike momentary emotion.

What style is the Le Desespere?

Realism Art.

When was the Le Désespéré last exhibited?

Le Désespéré currently resides in the private collection of BNP Paribas, France; however, the investment banking group last displayed the painting in the Musée d’Orsay’s 2007 Courbet exhibition.

What is the greatest Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait?

Gustave Courbet painted a considerable amount of self-portraits, similar to Rembrandt and van Gogh; however, his realism contributed vastly to the evolution of art, and some of the crucial Gustave Courbet self-portraits are The Sculptor and Le Désespéré.

Related Reads.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments