The blissful intimacy of Courbet’s Femme endormie aux cheveux roux

Ahead of Christie’s inaugural European Paintings  auction on 31 October, specialist Arne Everwijn discusses the importance of the artist’s radical nudes, and why the subject of this superb painting might have been particularly close to the artist’s heart

‘Courbet is considered one of the 19th century’s most prominent advocates of Realism,’ says Arne Everwijn, European art Senior Specialist at Christie’s in London. ‘His work, and particularly his nudes, caused a scandal in their day, and initiated a turn from academic painting towards a less idealised aesthetic.’

In Paris in the early 1840s, a young Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) frequented the Louvre, sketching female figures plucked from Old Master paintings by the likes of Titian, Correggio and Veronese. But he chafed at these stiff, establishment-approved figures — lifted from Classical mythology and set in verdant landscapes — which were a world away from the real women who inhabited his bohemian Paris.

‘Even in his early nudes, Courbet’s realist tendencies simmer below the surface,’ says Everwijn. ‘The blue, green and pink-toned skin of the women he depicts — executed in impasto with a palette knife — is complete with blemishes. He also paints his subjects close up, which gives the compositions an almost confrontational quality.’

In 1853 Courbet submitted his nude painting The Bathers  to the Paris Salon, knowing that because he had won a second-class medal there four years prior, the piece would be accepted without review.

The day before its opening, however, the Salon received a visit from Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, who took particular offence at Courbet’s naked, ample, unidealised bather. Their furore fuelled a very public outcry against Courbet’s nudes, a backlash which would dog him for the rest of his career.

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877), Femme endormie aux cheveux roux, painted in 1864. 22⅜ x 27½  in (56.8 x 69.9  cm). Estimate $3,500,000-4,500,000. This lot is offered in European Art Part I on 31 October 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877), Femme endormie aux cheveux roux, painted in 1864. 22⅜ x 27½ in (56.8 x 69.9 cm). Estimate: $3,500,000-4,500,000. This lot is offered in European Art: Part I on 31 October 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Femme endormie aux cheveux roux  is part of a group of three nudes that Courbet executed in the mid-1860s. They depict Joanna Hiffernan, the young Irish muse  who was lover of the artist James McNeill Whistler, who himself was a close friend of Courbet.

‘This is the first time Courbet painted Joanna in this pose,’ says Everwijn. ‘It's an experiment with new angles, textures and tones. Courbet often said that a true genius should be able to repeat his greatest works, and he clearly admired this evocative nude of Jo, going on to paint it twice more.’ (Of the remaining paintings in this group, one is now housed in the Kunstmuseum in Bern; the other was destroyed in Berlin during World War II.)

Although Courbet never acknowledged this in writing, our specialist likes to think the subject might also have been dear to Courbet for other, more personal reasons. ‘Jo appears in this blissful sleep, her blushing cheeks painted with great intimacy, and it feels as though she knows someone is in the room with her,’ he suggests. ‘Perhaps they were secret lovers?’ Indeed, later in life, Courbet would write to Whistler, ‘I still have the portrait of Jo, which I will never sell.’ That work now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The reverse of the work contains exhibitions labels from the Musée Gustave Courbet in the artists native Ornans, and the Petit Palais in Paris, among others

The reverse of the work contains exhibitions labels from the Musée Gustave Courbet in the artist's native Ornans, and the Petit Palais in Paris, among others

Other nudes by Courbet were considered so scandalous that they were omitted from sale catalogues during his lifetime. Some of the most taboo, such as The Origin of the World, remained hidden from the public eye for a century after his death.

Yet Courbet did have champions. The influential art critic Castagnaty, who celebrated the work of Ingres and Delacroix, and who coined the term ‘Impressionist’, was one of his most ardent supporters. In an 1882 exhibition catalogue of Courbet’s work, Castagnaty wrote, ‘The flesh, the true flesh, flows from his supple knife... One never tires of contemplating the modelling of the beautiful breasts, arms, and bosoms, and the freshness and brightness of these skins. Invoke, if you like, the greatest names in painting. I do not think anyone has ever come this close to life.’

If Courbet’s aesthetic was well ahead of its time, his nudes would have a profound effect on future generations of artists. Matisse began collecting his works in 1916-17, referencing his naturalistic, sleeping nudes in works such as Odalisque. In 1920, Matisse supposedly removed a Courbet from his wall, held it aloft and exclaimed, ‘This is what I call painting!’

Courbet’s honest approach to flesh — which was integral to his sense of modernism — went on to shape the work of other 20th-century artists, such as Cézanne, Manet, Monet, Klimt and Modigliani. De Kooning and Freud, in their own ways, declared their admiration for his unapologetic realism, while in 1986 Gerhard Richter paid homage to Courbet’s technique in his work Abstraktes Bild Courbet, further cementing his legacy.