The Firemen is one of Courbet’s most enigmatic large-scale works. After the death of her brother, Juliette Courbet found this huge canvas rolled up in his studio and donated it to the City of Paris. The scene depicts the outbreak of a fire in a Parisian street at night.
A workman in overalls with his arm in the air has raised the alarm. The hand-drawn fire cart has been wheeled out of the fire station. Passers-by – a working-class mother, a staggering adolescent and a bourgeois couple – stand back to leave it room for manoeuvre. The firemen simulated setting off by torchlight for the painter, but the idea for the painting goes back to a trip Courbet made to Holland, which by his own admission was an important lesson in painting for him. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642), which he saw in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, depicts the municipal guard setting off under the command of Captain Cocq. As in the Burial at Ornans (Paris, Musée d’Orsay), the wheeling movement performed by the firemen disrupts the longitudinal perspective of the composition in which all the figures are grouped in the lower half of the canvas. This movement, which is exaggerated by arm gestures, seems to extend beyond the canvas towards the visitor standing in front of it. Courbet reserved the upper half of the painting for the urban landscape, whose diagonal grounds punctuate the composition. In a striking form of shorthand, Courbet conjures up the urban renewal which is underway in the capital by juxtaposing a Gothic gate on the right, symbolising the medieval town, with a gas lamp, symbolising the City of Light under construction.
The uprising during the coup d’état on 2 December 1851 at Poissy fire station, where Courbet was working, put an end to the project. Second Officer, Jean-Victor Frond, depicted in the group of firemen, sided with the Republicans. He was brought before a council of war and deported to Algeria. Some historians, basing themselves on Courbet’s socialist convictions have detected a political allegory in the unfinished work, recalling the social intentions of the Prince-president, elected by universal suffrage and the author, in 1844, of an essay entitled The elimination of pauperism. With its strong physical impact, rejection of theatricality and multilayered iconography, this piece is one of the most significant of Courbet’s realist works, whose novelty was becoming apparent in the 1850s.