This painting shows Courbet's rejection of both Romantic and Neoclassical formulas. His subject is neither historical nor allegorical, religious nor heroic. The men breaking the stones are ordinary road workers, presented almost life-size. Courbet does not idealize the struggle for existence; he simply says, "Look at this."
Courbet's detractors were sure that he was causing artistic and moral decline by painting what they considered unpleasant and trivial subjects on a grand scale. They accused him of raising a "cult of ugliness" against cherished concepts of Beauty and the Ideal. Realism was perceived as nothing less than the enemy of art, and many believed that photography was the source and the sponsor of this disaster.
When The Stone Breakers
exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1850, it was attacked as unartistic,
crude, and socialistic. From then on, Courbet set up his own exhibits
-- the beginning of the continuing practice of independent shows organized
by artists themselves.