Gustave Courbet 4: The erotic

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Sleepers (1866), oil on canvas, 135 x 200 cm, Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Having explored figurative and landscape painting, and posed one of the great artistic enigmas of the century, in the 1860s Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) followed his Sleeping Nude from 1858 with a controversial if not scandalous series of nudes.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Woman with White Stockings (1861), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

His explicit Woman with White Stockings, which may date from 1861 or 1864, was almost certainly painted as a private commission, and wasn’t exhibited in public until the twentieth century. It is generally held to show a young prostitute getting dressed after having sex with a client, near a beach.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Nude Woman with a Dog (1861-62), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Nude Woman with a Dog from 1861-62 shows his lover at the time, Léontine Renaude, on a very similar beach, playing with a small white dog, whose coat has a very painterly facture. This was first exhibited in 1868.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Source (1862), oil on canvas, 120 x 74.3 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Among this series of nudes are two which link to the landscapes which he was painting during this decade, whose titles differ in French but are rendered the same in English. The earlier, from 1862, is The Source, and shows the back of a young woman who appears to be embracing a small waterfall.

One of Courbet’s most important paintings of this period, which might have cast light on this extraordinary series of nudes, was unfortunately destroyed by an accident in his studio before it could be shown. The Source of Hippocrene was intended for submission to the Salon of 1864, and according to the artist’s letters showed a nude Parisian woman in a mythical landscape. Arrayed around her were contemporary poets, including Baudelaire, Gautier and Lamartine. The nude was apparently spitting into a fountain to poison its waters, while the poets all drank from them. Courbet apparently intended this to condemn “poetry’s hatred of realism”, according to Bridget Alsdorf.

Instead, Courbet submitted another work which has since been destroyed, Venus in Jealous Pursuit of Psyche (1864), which was rejected on grounds of its “immorality”. That painting is believed to have been destroyed during allied attacks on Berlin in the Second World War.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl (1866), oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Courbet’s affair with Léontine Renaude ended in 1862, following which he had an affair with Joanna Hiffernan, who had been Whistler’s model and remained his lover. Courbet’s initial modest portrait of Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl (1866) was a harbinger of much more to come – particularly as Whistler had gone to Valparaiso for seven months.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Young Bather (1866), oil on canvas, 130.2 x 97.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

By the time that Courbet painted The Young Bather in 1866, society was growing more tolerant of this mild eroticism. This was possibly his first painting to be purchased by Khalil Bey (more correctly Halil Şerif Paşa), the rich Turkish ambassador to Saint Petersburg and an avid collector of erotica.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Woman with a Parrot (1866), oil on canvas, 129.5 x 195.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Joanna Hiffernan is believed to have been the model for Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866), which was surprisingly accepted by the Salon that year, the first of these nudes to be exhibited there.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Recumbent Nude (1866), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 65.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Recumbent Nude, also from 1866, is another variant in this family of paintings from 1864-66, depicting women lying asleep. It was only rediscovered quite recently, and was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2013, selling for $725,000. It was almost certainly painted for a private commission, and never shown in public until its recent sale.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Sleepers (1866), oil on canvas, 135 x 200 cm, Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The Sleepers from 1866 was another commission for Khalil Bey for which Joanna Hiffernan modelled. It was exhibited by a picture dealer in 1872, when its explicit lesbian motif resulted in a police report. The painting was removed from sight of the public until 1988.

Courbet’s most controversial nude is The Origin of the World (1866), also painted for Khalil Bey. Shamelessly exploitative, it centres on a woman’s vulva, but the model’s head and shoulders have been covered with a white sheet. What it lacks in artistic merit it makes up for in controversy: until the 1980s, its existence was speculative, and a series of claimed images were the only rather dubious evidence of its survival. It is now an unjustifiably popular distraction in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where there is also a claimed upper section showing the woman’s head.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Three Bathers (1865-68), media and dimensions not known, musée du Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The Three Bathers from 1865-68 may be linked thematically with his two paintings of The Source, in showing two nude women bathing in a small pool. By this time, Joanna Hiffernan had become inaccessible, and Courbet’s models don’t appear to be recognisable.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Source (1868), oil on canvas, 128 x 97 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The Source from 1868 is Courbet’s second nude with her back to the viewer and one hand held in a small waterfall. This may well be more closely related to non-figurative paintings of this period, which I will examine in my next article in this series.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Woman in the Waves (1868), oil on canvas, 65.4 x 54 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Completing this series of nudes is Courbet’s The Woman in the Waves from 1868, which links to his developing interest in the coast and waves. Although the figure is reminiscent of the many classical nudes which were shown at the Salon at the time, Courbet’s vigorous painting of the spume flying around her body is very modern.

His paintings during the 1860s were thankfully far more varied than these well-known works would suggest. In the next article I’ll look at their dramatic seas and strange caverns.