Gustave Courbet’s masterful nudes from the 1860s are emblematic of both the ambition and daring of the artist at the height of his career. Courbet’s desire to set himself apart as the greatest painter of his generation would see him return to the subject matter of the nude time and time again over the course of about 30 years. These paintings, by turns both touchingly intimate and deliberately provocative, reached their zenith in the middle years of the 1860s, and set the brash painter from Ornans apart as one of the most dazzling and innovative painters of the female body in the Western canon. In his unfinished biography of Gustave Courbet, Jules Castagnary wrote, ‘The nude had always worried him. He had always known that flesh is the painter’s stumbling block, the point on which you prove yourself a master. How could you claim to be the equal of Veronese, Titian, Correggio, Rembrandt, if you did not attempt the nude? This is the fatal attraction and the decisive test’ (quoted in Gustave Courbet, New York, 2008, exh. cat., cat. no. 160, p. 340).
Courbet's earliest nudes date from the 1840s and arose from both the ‘rococo revival’ sweeping Europe during that decade and the artist’s frequent trips to the Louvre to study the old masters. While in theory these paintings – depicting figures taken from mythology in poses inspired by the old masters and set in verdant landscapes – were exactly what the Academic artistic establishment of the time deemed ‘acceptable’ in art, even in these early works the artist’s radical realism simmers just below the surface. The so-called nymphs and bacchantes are too clearly real women who have taken their clothes off, and their sylvan settings are not the forests of Arcadia but the landscape of Courbet’s native Franche-Comté. His insistence on pushing the boundaries of the strict precepts under which painting the female nude was deemed acceptable would set Courbet on a collision course with the powers that be of France’s artistic elite.
In 1853, Courbet decided that he would submit only paintings depicting nudes for that year’s Salon. Because he had achieved a second-class medal four years earlier, these submissions, The Wrestlers and The Bathers (fig. 1), were both accepted to the exhibition without being reviewed by the jury. When the Imperial couple, Napoléon III and the Empress Eugénie, visited the exhibition the day before it opened, they took particular offense to The Bathers, on both moral and aesthetic grounds and their objection kicked off a furor. The Bathers depicts two female figures in a wood, one seen from behind emerging from the water and the second sitting on the shore in a state of semi-undress. While the poses struck by the women echo those of Christ and Mary Magdalene in the iconography of the ‘Noli me tangere,’ the relationship between the two women is ambiguous, and their ample figures, unidealized bodies, and casually discarded clothing have no relationship to the cold, unblemished, classical nudes of the academic painters, who look as though they might have been carved from marble. The Bathers represented a watershed moment in Courbet’s career, one that the artist himself recognized, planning to include it in the background of The Artist’s Studio, and insisting that it be included in two retrospectives that took place during his lifetime.
While The Bathers is, to modern eyes, tame in comparison to Courbet’s later depictions of nude women, it played an important role in liberating Courbet from seeking the approval of the Academy. Bathers was the first in a line of some of the most profoundly innovative and modern depictions of the female body found in the history of art. While the Academic painters kept the female body safely at a distance, Courbet felt no such compunctions. For him, the ways in which female bodies differed from an imagined ideal was not imperfection, but simply reality, which it was the artist’s duty to render faithfully. He rebelled against academic tradition by favoring Rubenesque models, and he further thumbed his nose at the academics’ high degree of finish by painting these bodies with defiantly bold brushwork and by using palette knives, resulting in the then-unorthodox texture and impasto for which he is now known. Taking his technique from the Old Masters, Courbet began his paintings with a dark ground, overlaying scumbles of increasingly light colors on top of dark to build the painting to its finished surface.
Painted at the height of Courbet's artistic powers, Femme endormie aux cheveux roux is part of a series of important and controversial paintings of nude women he made during the middle years of the 1860s, including Vénus et Psyché (destroyed, fig. 2), Le Sommeil (Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, fig. 3), Femme au perroquet (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and, most notoriously, L'Origine du monde (Paris, Musée d'Orsay). With Delacroix’s death in 1863 and Ingres nearing the end of his life, Courbet felt the need to make a statement to assert himself as the greatest painter of his age. And, just as he had in the 1850s, he again turned to the nude figure to achieve this aim. With works like Alexandre Cabanel's Birth of Venus being exhibited to great acclaim at the Salon, Courbet undertook his own important series of large-scale reclining nudes, some of which were also intended to be displayed at the exhibition.
The first of these paintings was Vénus et Psyché (also sometimes called Le réveil, destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War), for which the present work is a study. When Courbet’s planned submission to the 1864 Salon was damaged in the studio he decided instead to submit Vénus et Psyché, which featured the model from Femme endormie aux cheveux roux sleeping on a heavily draped, enclosed bed, while a second nude female figure with dark hair, partially covered by the sleeping figure’s bedsheets which are wrapped around her, raises one of the hanging drapes to peer down on the red-haired model. Courbet described the work in his letters as, ‘two nude women, life size and painted in a manner that you have never seen me do’ (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 237, letter 64-3). Courbet submitted the painting under the title Study of Women but indicted that it could also be called Venus in Jealous Pursuit of Psyche. Even though the artist tried to give the picture an air of respectability with this mythological title, the picture was rejected by the Salon jury on the grounds of immorality, which infuriated Courbet. A critical opinion of the painting published in Le Figaro argued that Courbet's women were the personification of Charles Baudelaire's ‘obscene’ Femmes damnées, one of the poems from Les Fleurs du mal which described two lesbian lovers.
Vénus et Psyché’s notoriety brought it to the attention of Khalil-Bey, a wealthy Turkish-Egyptian diplomat, who had temporarily retired to Paris in the 1860s. Khalil-Bey tried to purchase Vénus et Psyché from the artist, but Courbet had already promised to sell the work to another collector. Instead, he offered to paint a ‘sequel’ to Vénus et Psyché for Khalil-Bey, the work that would become the even more overtly lesbian-themed Le Sommeil. In Le Sommeil the two nude figures from Vénus et Psyché are now both sleeping, their bodies tangled together in post-coital abandon. This taboo subject was not the last that Courbet would undertake for Khalil-Bey’s collection, as the diplomat would also commission the most infamous nude in Courbet’s oeuvre, if not in all of art - L’Origine du monde. When his collection was broken up and sold only a few years later to help cover the diplomat’s gambling debts, both Le Sommeil and L’Origine du monde were considered so taboo that they were excluded from the sale catalogue. The latter was considered so scandalous it would not be displayed publically for another century after, a fact that would have delighted the artist. ‘When I am no longer controversial,’ Courbet asserted, ‘I will no longer be important.’
Another aspect of what made Courbet’s nudes so controversial was not just that they appeared to be real women who had removed their clothes, but that very often they were women who were well-known by the cognoscenti in Paris and easily recognized. The red-headed model featured in Femme endormie aux cheveux roux, as well as Vénus et Psyché and Le Sommeil, was the young Irishwoman Joanna Hiffernan, known as Jo. She gained notoriety as ‘the white girl’ in James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White (fig. 4), which was the source of much criticism and praise when it was exhibited in the Salon des Refusés in 1863. She would be Whistler’s preferred model, as well as his mistress, throughout the 1860s. Courbet, who met Jo in Paris in about 1862 through Whistler, his friend and self-described ‘student,’ was captivated by her as well, writing to his friend and patron Alfred Bruyas, ‘Of the two thousand ladies who came to my studio…I admired most the beauty of a superb redhead whose portrait I have started’ (P. Borel, Lettres de Gustave Courbet à Alfred Bruyas, Geneva, 1951, p. 116). This portrait would come to be known as Jo, la belle irlandaise (fig. 5), one of Courbet’s most beautiful genre-portraits and one of his personal favorite paintings, of which there are several versions. In a letter Courbet wrote to Whistler in 1877, the last year of Courbet’s life, he said, ‘I still have the portrait of Jo, which I will never sell’ (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 601, letter 77-9). Because she continued to model for Courbet while Whistler was traveling abroad, there has been some suggestion that Courbet and Jo may have been involved in a sexual relationship around the time he painted her in Le Sommeil.
As with Jo, la belle irlandaise, the focus in the present picture is on the unabashed sensuality of her thick, freely-cascading hair, which the artist so admired. Whistler too described her hair in a letter to Fantin-Latour as the, ‘most beautiful hair you have ever seen! Not a golden red, but copper-colored – like everything Venetian one had dreamed of!’ (quoted in From Realism to Symbolism, Whistler and His World, New York, 1971, p. 69). In Femme endormie aux cheveux roux, however, the artist’s depiction of the model’s lustrous hair spilling out behind her is matched by his exceptionally beautiful rendering of her luminous flesh tones. Courbet succeeds in this picture like never before in capturing what Castagnary described as, ‘the feel of flesh….so difficult to render; there is this creamy white, uniform without becoming pale or matte; this mingling of red and blue that breathes imperceptibly; this blood, this life’ (quoted in Gustave Courbet, New York, 2008, exh. cat., p. 338). Indeed, Femme endormie aux cheveux roux is ultimately a perfect harmony of reds and blues, and it is the juxtaposition of the warmth of Jo’s skin and hair against the blues of her bedsheets and background which gives the painting the effect of pulsing with the essence of life itself.
Femme endormie aux cheveux roux is undoubtedly one of the most intimate nudes in all of Courbet’s oeuvre. The effect of bringing the life-sized figure right up to the front of the picture plane, separated from the viewer by only the thin sheet covering her arm in the lower right hand corner is so arresting in its intimacy as to feel intrusive. The effect is only heightened by placing the model’s face right at the center of the composition while she is in such a vulnerable and peaceful state. Like the vast majority of Courbet’s nudes, in the present work the sleeping Jo does not look at or engage with the viewer in any way. Yet her individualized presence permeates the canvas so strongly that the viewer cannot help but feel a deep and real sense of the intimacy that existed between the painter and his model.
Though they are more frequently seen from a distance, sleeping figures like Femme endormie aux cheveux roux have long played an important role within Courbet’s oeuvre. Women sleeping unobserved in his paintings have been understood as erotic figures both because they are seen to be passively sexually available and because the fact that they are being painted in such a state implies the present of an unseen male spectator, the artist. Certainty this interpretation has been partially driven by the artist’s own bragging and exaggeration in his letters about his sexual exploits. And yet Castagnary tells us that, ‘in his life, woman comes strictly second.’ Dominique de Font-Réaulx, as a result, sees these female nudes less as documentation of the artist’s conquests and more as an examination of the private world of women, with which the artist, as the brother to three sisters, would have been intimately familiar from his earliest days. Sleep must have been particularly interesting to Courbet as a realist as well. While many artists have been interested in high-minded ideas about dreams, sleep for Courbet represents instead a model without artifice. One is truly oneself while sleeping in a way that is not possible while awake, and for an artist who devoted his career to painting the real, this must have held a particular appeal.
In addition to Femme endormie aux cheveux roux, a study for the single figure of Venus (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) is also known, and is like the present work thought to be executed in 1864, the same year as the now-lost Salon picture. Courbet would return to the composition again in 1866, creating the painting known as Le réveil which is housed at the Kunstmuseum Bern (fig. 6). In this smaller, revised version of the Salon picture, Courbet compresses the scene significantly. Instead of placing the figure of Venus down by the knees of the sleeping Psyche, in the Bern picture the dark-haired figure leans in from around the sleeping figure’s chest, holding a flower above her face and dropping its petals to wake her.
Even if they were not always accepted by the Academy, the brilliance of Courbet’s artistic innovations and his mastery of the nude were recognized during his lifetime. Castagnary, the influential art critic who had championed both Ingres and Delacroix and had coined the term ‘impressionist,’ was also one of Courbet’s most ardent supporters. In his discussion of Courbet’s nudes in the 1882 exhibition catalogue of Courbet’s work the great critic concluded: ‘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’ (quoted in Gustave Courbet, New York, 2008, exh. cat., cat. no. 160, p. 340).
Courbet has long been regarded by scholars as one of the principal figures in the vanguard of Modernism as it emerged in the 19th century. The influence the artist’s devout realism, in addition to his physicality in the application of paint, and his creation of emphatically painterly surfaces can be traced through the generations of artists that followed him, from his lifetime through to the present day. Courbet’s influence can be found in the effect he had on the career trajectories of the young Manet, Monet, and Fantin-Latour, in Cézanne’s landscapes and Nolde’s expressionist seascapes, and into the middle years of the 20th century in the ‘action painting’ of the Abstract Expressionists. The artist’s impact can even be felt in Contemporary painting through the large abstract ‘squeegee’ canvases of Gerhard Richter, in which the artist uses his hard-edged spatula to drag layers of paint over one another much like Courbet built his paint layers using his palette knife. Though this link may at first glance seem to be a tenuous connection, Richter himself titled one of these monumental works in homage to the great painter, calling it Abstraktes Bild Courbet (1986).
Courbet was, above all, an iconoclast. He was an artist who pushed conventional limits, defied societal norms and truly redefined what it meant to be an avant-garde painter. In so doing, he created both a visual and physical language of painting that remains dynamic and relevant today. The great nudes of the 1860s are an integral part of this legacy. Clearing away the rubble of traditions and restrictions that surrounded painting the female body, Courbet’s nudes were a joyful celebration of women’s bodies rather than a cold Academic recitation. They were, as Dominique de Font-Réaulx says, ‘naked, buxom creatures in their prime, whose womanly flesh, ample curves, and clarity of skin can be felt on the surface of the picture and pervade the composition.’ From Courbet’s unabashed nudes comes the modernist thematic and visual innovations of painting the female body still with us today – those of Manet, Matisse, Modigliani and Freud.
(fig. 1): Gustave Courbet, Les Baigneuses, 1853. Le musée Fabre, Montpellier.
(fig. 2): Gustave Courbet, Vénus et Psyché, 1864. Destroyed in Germany during World War II.
(fig. 3): Gustave Courbet, Le Sommeil, 1866. Petit Palais, Paris.
(fig. 4): James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 5): Gustave Courbet, Jo, La Belle Irlandaise, 1865-66. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 6): Gustave Courbet, Le Réveil, 1866. Kunstmuseum, Bern.