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Le Désespéré: A Realist Art That Portrays Early Rejection

Updated: Jan 27

A collage of Le Désespéré and artist Gustave Courbet
Le Désespéré And French Painter Gustave Courbet | Source: Gustave Courbet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons And Gallica

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 over my application for jobs. 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. How do you feel about it? In the midst of getting fascinated with art and paintings at the same time, I read around 50-60 books, and I saw that some legendary artists faced it and fought against it. Among them, whose artwork I loved, was Edward 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. Promise me, Bud!

About The Artist: Who Was Gustave Courbet?

Born on 10 June 1819 in Ornace, France, he was the son of Eléonor-Régis, a prosperous farmer, and Sylvie Courbet. He 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, he 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.

A picture of French painter Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877) | Source: Gallica

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

Background Of The Desperate Man Painting.

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. There are artists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt, known for their own images, but you can't simply compare their art with Courbet's.

Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait, Le Désespéré, 1845 - 1847
Le Désespéré, 1844 - 1845 | Source: Gustave Courbet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Art critique des Cars emphasized the artist's self-representation as the accurate renders 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 make 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.

Le Désespéré Meaning: What Was Courbet Trying To Portray?

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 Wounded Man | Source: Gustave Courbet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Sculptor, Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait
The Sculptor | Source: Gustave Courbet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mad man with fear self-portrait by Gustave Courbet
Mad Man with Fear | Source: Google Art

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.

The Desperate Man Analysis.


Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet

Year Painted

c. 1843 (Source: Courbet's Realism by Fried, Michael)


Oil on canvas




Self-Portraiture, Realism


45 cm x 55 cm


Priceless, Not on sale

Where is it housed?

Private collection of BNP Paribas, France.

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
The Desperate Man | Source: Gustave Courbet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Notice the kind of anxiety while you see the position of his hands over the head with tints of panic. Sometimes, all of the 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.

Colour Analysis Of Le Desespere.

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!

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.

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