The Desperate Man by Gustav Courbet: Beauty Emerging from Agony

The Desperate Man by Gustav Courbet

The face stares at you, the eyes speak something so deep, penetrating your eyes and looking into your soul, calling something that the face is feeling. This is what you see when you look at The Desperate Man by Gustav Courbet, a painting that has captured the attention of many and becomes a part of art’s representation in pop culture.

The Desperate Man shows more than just desperation. The hands pulling back the hair, the eyes brimming with astonishment and a hint of fear. A single source of light illuminates one side of the subject’s face and body while the other side remains in subtle darkness. So what makes this painting so “eye-catching”? Let’s find out. 

An ego and failure 

The face and the unkempt hair portrays a man who has spent sleepless nights creating a masterpiece and yet he still suffers. Courbet was not a restrained soul. He was a rebel, a vagabond with a taste for art. He did not want to follow the norms but create something new and interesting. 

The problem with an enthusiastic new artist trying to create a path for themselves rather than walking on the ones which pay is there are hardly any monetary gains from it. The lack of money and appreciation from the official art salon was the reason for this desperation, this fear. But there’s something more. 

A painter like Courbet knew what he wanted to make. He came to Paris to get a law degree but turned away to get into the arts. He did not enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts and chose to train by learning from the masters. There was unsurmountable confidence inside him and when confidence starts to fail, ego takes its place. And when ego fails, desperation is the only choice we have. This is what the painting reflects. A failing ego in utter pain, desperate to look for a way to succeed, while afraid at the same time of never achieving the things once he dreamed of. 

The struggle of the youth 

Courbet once said  “How I was made to suffer despair in my youth!” reflecting on the days of struggle when he faced rejections. The face here in the self-portrait shows the condensed feeling of all the rejections. Failing is difficult, but failing with unshakable faith in one’s abilities is more difficult. 

Courbet eventually found success and that is the reason why I am here writing about his face and you are here reading about it along with many others. But the period of uncertainty when everything one dreams of seems to be failing, turning into a pipe dream, an unachievable fantasy. The expression is the visual representation of that very feeling. 

snippet from the painting The Desperate Man
The amalgamation of Realism and Romanticism can be seen here

Between Romanticism and Realism 

The painting’s style is equally unique to the painter’s lifestyle. The bland colors, the exactness of proportions, the composition all point towards a Realism style. Yet the rouge on the cheeks, the posture, the scene points towards Romanticism. Then if you look at the lighting, there is a bit of Chiaroscuro as well. So it is safe to assume that the painting sits between Realism and Romanticism, leaning a bit more towards Realism. 

“I have never seen either angels or goddesses, so I am not interested in painting them.”

Gustav Courbet

Courbet knew what he wanted to paint and depict. His most successful works are the bland and non-exciting scenes of day-to-day life such as The Burial at Ornans, The Stone Breakers, and The Painters Studio. You’ll hardly find more than 3 shades of color and most of them are gloomy, dark, and somewhat depressing.

Why is The Desperate Man so strong? 

The adjective “strong” here does not refer to the physical strength. Whether Courbet was strong or not cannot be confirmed by us. But the gaze and the emotions are very strong, strong enough to make you look at his eyes and try and read it.

The painting is made to be intriguing. The subject’s face takes the center of the canvas. It is symmetrical and it is a small painting.

The painting is 1 foot 6 inches wide and 1 foot 10 inches tall. The reason for that is the subject’s size is very lifelike, not large in grand painting or not small to make it look like a photograph. Human-sized, as if the painting is a window and he is looking at you. The symmetry and the size of the painting contribute a lot towards the eerie hold it has over the viewers. 

The eyes of the desperate man
The fear, the pain and the desperation


A desperate man, a tortured artist, a man with an immense weight of dreams trying to cross a sea and suddenly realizes that he may drown. This is the face of terror, not roused due to the fear of the end of life, but the end of a creative life, end of dreams. Anyone who has had the passion to follow a dream and laid out a mental plan must have been in this situation before. Or will be. There is no escape. 

This sheer state of terror of losing everything that gives meaning to your life is terrifying and that is what Courbet has tried to capture in this painting. The realization that nothing will turn out as one once thought. There is fear but there is also pain, helplessness, and of course, desperation. 

I don’t think there is any painting that shows this terror so realistically and the more I look into his eyes, the more I look inside myself and face the very same feeling I once did when I started everything I love and have today. And this feeling does not go, as long as I keep doing new things, trying to achieve more than what I have. Perhaps that is a good thing. 

Perhaps the day I won’t find myself in Courbet’s desperate situation will be the day I’ll stop caring for my creative pursuits and that will be the death of my creativity, death of my desperation. This concludes the article. If you liked this article, why not increase of artistic knowledge? Here are some great articles that you should read: