Around 10:30 p.m. on the night of Feb. 13, 1945, air raid sirens began to blare. This was not unusual; the sirens went off most nights. But as a civilian town that had largely managed to escape involvement in war production activities, Dresden had previously been spared from Allied attacks and had instead become a haven for German refugees.
On this night, the sirens were followed not just by a deadly rain of bombs, but a blanket attack of explosives that produced a vicious inferno.
Over the two days of the attack, Dresden went up in flames consuming everything in its path including a still unknown number of civilian lives that some estimates put in the hundreds of thousands.
“The bombs had thrown people into the trees,” Matthias Griebel, who was 8 at the time of the bombing, told The New York Times in 1995. “The streets had broken up. The water mains had broken. The gas pipes were on fire. It was how you would imagine hell.”
While nothing could dispel the tragedy of the lives lost, there was one bright spot amid the destruction. Dresden was a cultural mecca known for its impressive art collection. By the end of WWII, most of the treasures from the city’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, or Old Masters Gallery, had been safely secured in the countryside.
Among the estimated 450 works of art that were lost or destroyed by the firebombings and attendant looting by the Red Army in the aftermath of the war’s end, there is one canvas lost that is widely considered the most important: Gustave Courbet’s “The Stonebreakers.”
It was a revolutionary work, one of the French Realist’s greatest paintings, and in February of 1945, it was destroyed by the Allied air campaign.
Ninety-five years before fire rained down on Dresden, Courbet debuted his new painting “The Stonebreakers” at the Paris Salon of 1850-51 and reportedly caused “a sensation.”
It was a massive painting—5.5 feet-by-8.5 feet—on a scale normally reserved for historically important landscapes or portraits. But Courbet used his sizable canvas to portray two shabby peasants engaged in backbreaking labor. It was shocking.
Courbet began catching the attention of the French art establishment only two years prior to this scandalous exhibition. The young painter grew up in the countryside of Ornans, a place he had a deep connection to and one he painted often.
While he was born into a prosperous, land-owning family, he embraced populist politics, fashioned himself as a bohemian figure in the counterculture of the day, and reveled in shocking the establishment. (When offered the Legion of Honor in 1870, he gave the French cultural authorities a vocal and very public middle finger.)
In January, 1848, he wrote to his family, “I am about to make it any time now, for I am surrounded by people who are very influential in the newspapers and the arts, and who are very excited about my painting. Indeed, we are about to form a new school, of which I will be the representative in the field of painting.”
Later that year, he did indeed begin to enjoy some acclaim, but it was two years after that when Courbet catapulted himself into the artistic conversation when he showed a trio of controversial paintings at the annual Paris Salon. These three works, one of which was “The Stonebreakers,” are credited with establishing a new school of art—Realism.
While most prominent artists of the day were focused on painting monumental historical works or grand portraits of the well-to-do, Courbet began to paint ordinary people based on real-life scenes depicted exactly as he saw them.
“The Stonebreakers” was based on two men, one young and one old, whom he discovered engaged in grueling work on the side of the road when he returned to Ornans for an eight-month visit in October 1948.
“It is not often that one encounters so complete an expression of poverty and so, right then and there I got the idea for a painting,” he told his friends and art critics Francis Wey and Jules Champfleury.
He described the resulting painting as “composed of two very pitiable figures… One is an old man, an old machine grown stiff with service and age… The one behind him is a young man about fifteen years old, suffering from scurvy.”
The critics, for their part, were not quite as delighted with the novel subject. They tossed around such incendiary accusations as “Socialist” and “democratic.”
“What appears to have most disturbed conservative critics about Courbet's art, and what prompted these and other charges, was its ‘deliberate ugliness,’ which meant its embrace of both a popular (‘ugly’) content and a popular (working-class) Salon audience,” Stephen Eisenman wrote in Nineteenth Century Art.
These barbs were fine with Courbet, who embraced the role of revolutionary. As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith once described him, “Courbet the man was deeply out of sorts, independent, ambitious, wily, perennially dissatisfied with his lot, in addition to being, as he himself put it, ‘the most arrogant man in France.’” He also “[lived] by the phrase “épater le bourgeois,’ or ‘shock the bourgeoisie.’”
Only five years after Courbet riled up the Parisian art establishment, big changes were also happening on the far side of neighboring Germany. On September 25, 1855, the vaunted Old Masters Gallery in Dresden moved into a shiny custom-made museum space in the Zwinger Palace.
The Semper Gallery had been built by one of the top architects of the day—Gottfried Semper—specifically for the impressive art collection that the city’s rulers had assembled over two centuries. It was just one more step that artistic Dresden took in solidifying its turn-of-the-century reputation as the “Paris on the Elbe.”
In its new, impressive space, the Old Masters Gallery continued to grow in size and prestige and in the early 20th century, its fortunes collided with that of the now-deceased Courbet when it acquired the painter’s 1850 masterpiece by way of a gift from the estate of German businessman Max Heinrich Eduard Pröll-Heuer.
But “The Stonebreakers’” reign on the walls of the Semper Gallery was relatively short lived. When war broke out in 1939, the museum closed its doors and went to work securing the collection. Paintings and other precious artifacts were evacuated to the countryside where they were dispersed among castles and mine-shafts for safekeeping. Why “The Stonebreakers” was not among them is unknown, but Courbet’s masterpiece stayed in Dresden with a handful of other works.
When the Allies descended on Dresden that dark February night, “The Stonebreakers” was in the path of destruction. The two nameless French men immortalized in oils went up in flames along with so many lives and other historical and architectural treasures.
In the aftermath of the end of WWII, Dresden authorities began to pick up the pieces of all that had been lost. While much of the city was cleared for new construction, the decision was made to rebuild and preserve the buildings around the Zwinger Palace including the Semper Gallery.
The Soviet army absconded with much of the city’s art collection when they came across the treasures stored in the countryside after invading the eastern part of Germany. But in the mid-1950s, an agreement was brokered and most of the works were returned home to the Old Masters Gallery where they remain today.
But an irreplaceable loss remains where “The Stonebreakers” once hung.
“When I stop being controversial, I'll stop being important,” Courbet wrote in an 1852 letter home. He never did, as his surviving work testifies, nor will the events of February 1945 that destroyed one of the greatest among them.