Two young women lie by a river. Traditionally, such a scene would be set in an idyllic landscape, with the women as impossibly perfect ideals of youth and beauty, often in the guise of classical nudes – goddesses of Greek mythology. But this pair caused a scandal when a larger version (now in the Musée du Petit Palais, Paris) appeared at the Paris Salon in 1857.
Courbet had subverted the tradition, showing two modern city women in an inappropriate Arcadian setting, one of them, shockingly, in her underwear. To the contemporary bourgeois audience, full nudity would probably have been considered less indecent. The artist’s reputation as a dangerous radical quickly grew.
Courbet made a number of studies for the Salon painting, but it’s not certain if this is one of them or a copy made later by an unknown artist. It would not appear to be in Courbet’s hand, but still holds something of the shock of the original at first view.
They appear below us but almost uncomfortably close, filling almost the whole of the frame and making the river and the sketchily painted tree almost incidental. Far from at ease, enjoying a peaceful moment in the countryside, these women are alert and aware. Courbet has made no attempt at flattery. One leans up on one elbow, almost squashing the large, colourful bouquet of flowers under the other. She is fashionably dressed and the hand holding her cheek wears a black lace mitten. Shiny coral beads circle her wrist. She looks back over her ballooning skirts, but although it’s a complacent gaze there is a feeling that she’s watching, and perhaps waiting.
The other woman sprawls out flat, her head on the dress she has taken off and bundled up like a pillow. A soft Indian shawl is spread over her hips and the stiff frills of her petticoats stick up like butterfly wings over her back. To the French bourgeois audience, the removal of the dress was shocking. This showing of the woman’s underwear, and such glamorous underwear too, was outrageous – full nudity would probably have been considered less indecent. But perhaps even worse was her knowing, almost predatory look, faintly amused and blatantly erotic. To the Paris viewers, not only were the women from the city posed in an inappropriate Arcadian setting, there was little doubt as to their profession, and to have them so unashamedly displayed was totally unacceptable.
Courbet was vilified for his choice of subject. He had subverted the accepted portrayal of women in a natural setting: graceful, often fragile and although attractive, basically untouched. Instead, he made his modern women seem far from untouched. This was deemed as Realism at its offensive worst, and Courbet’s reputation as a dangerous radical quickly grew.
The larger version of the painting exhibited at the Salon of 1857 is now in the Musée du Petit Palais, Paris. Courbet made a number of studies for that Salon painting, but it’s not certain if this is one of them or a copy made later by an unknown artist. It would not appear to be in Courbet’s hand, though it still holds something of the shock of the original at first view. There are many opinions as to its origin but none but of them is satisfactory. Versions, studies, sketches and prints of the original painting exist in various galleries and private collections all over the world.
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