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The Scandalous Nudes of Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet, The Sleepers, 1866, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux Arts, Paris. Photo via petitpalais.paris.fr.

Bodies And Erotic Art

The Scandalous Nudes of Gustave Courbet

In the 19th century, French painter and rebel Gustave Courbet generated outrage with his scandalous nudes. What exactly was so scandalous about his paintings? Courbet had the audacity to paint (gasp) real women in the nude.

Courbet and Realism

Born in 1819 in a small town in France, Courbet was initially inspired by the artistic greats: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Titian. He later broke with tradition and embraced Realism, a style which attempted to capture “real life.” At the Paris Salon in 1850, Courbet displayed ten paintings, including the now famous depiction of blue-collar workers titled The Stone-Breakers. Critics were angered and baffled by the drudgery of labor and the realistic depiction of poverty in the work. (Read what art critic A.J. Dupays said about the work.)

Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849, work destroyed. Photo via gustave-courbet.com.

Courbet and the Critics

Some of the outrage over Courbet’s early work seems laughable to a modern viewer. In his work The Bathers, for example, critics disliked that the partially nude woman in the painting had dirty feet and was obviously a commoner. Not exactly shocking stuff today.

scandalous partially clothed nude woman
Gustave Courbet, The Bathers, 1853, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France.

Disheveled Hair and Ungainly Poses

Courbet’s realism didn’t stop at depictions of poverty or the lower classes of society, though. What really shocked the masses was Courbet’s insistence on painting non-idealized, contemporary women, rather than mythological ones. The Salon rejected his 1864 painting Study of Women (later re-titled Venus with Psyche) because of its “immorality.” What was so immoral about the work? Most likely it was Courbet’s depiction of not one but two (!) naked women that shocked the Salon.

scandalous nudes
Gustave Courbet, Venus With Psyche, 1864.

Undeterred by this rejection, Courbet created and submitted Woman with a Parrot.  Although critics disliked the nude woman’s “ungainly” pose and “disheveled” hair, the Salon accepted the painting in 1866.

scandalous nude Woman with a parrot
Gustave Courbet, Woman with a Parrot, 1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Naked or Nude?

Courbet’s nudes were not statuesque goddesses who just so happened to be nude, but ordinary, often fleshy, women who seemed more naked than nude. Take The Woman in the Waves from 1868, where the woman’s underarm hair is clearly visible. If this was meant to be Venus, this was not a Venus anyone had seen before. Goddesses, after all, don’t have underarm hair.  The subject of Woman with White Stockings is in the act of dressing (or undressing), as if performing a striptease, something goddesses were also not known to do.

woman in water; Courbet scandalous nudes
Gustave Courbet, The Woman in the Waves, 1868, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
partially nude woman with white stockings; Courbet scandalous nudes
Gustave Courbet, Woman with White Stockings, 1864, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

The nudes in Courbet’s work are not anorexic-looking waifs but instead have thick thighs, ample buttocks, and rounded stomachs. So for contemporary viewers bombarded with Photoshopped images of rail-thin models, why are Courbet’s nudes still seen as scandalous today?

Spying on Women

To a modern audience, Courbet’s work is often uncomfortably voyeuristic. The viewer is invited, along with the artist, to spy on the nude women as they sleep, bathe, or lounge about outdoors sans clothing. The women are unaware of being the object of someone’s gaze, as seen in the paintings below.

Courbet scandalous nudes
Gustave Courbet, Sleeping Nude, 1858, Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
Gustave Courbet, The Source, 1862, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
a woman outside by a tree; Courbet scandalous nudes
Gustave Courbet, The Young Bather, 1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Indecent” Art

French society continued to be scandalized by Courbet’s work. His 1866 painting The Sleepers was labelled as indecent. In this work, the viewer once again spies on two naked women asleep in each other’s arms. In case there’s any doubt as to what has exhausted them, the discarded hairpins and broken string of pearls in the bed offer clues. Courbet created this for Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat who had an extensive erotica collection.

two women asleep in each other's arms; Courbet scandalous nudes
Gustave Courbet, The Sleepers, 1866, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux Arts, Paris. Photo via petitpalais.paris.fr.

The Most Scandalous Nude of All

Probably the most shocking of Courbet’s work is the aptly titled The Origin of the World, also created in 1866 for Bey’s private erotica collection. This close-up depiction of a woman, legs splayed open, was never meant to hang on a museum wall. Bey kept his extensive collection of erotic art behind a green curtain and only revealed it to those he deemed worthy. Meanwhile today it hangs on the wall of the Musée d’Orsay. Surely an artist like Courbet, who delighted in shocking critics and society, would be thrilled to know he still has the power to scandalize.

Gustave Courbet, The Origin of the World, 1866, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo via artsy.net

See also:

Kelly Hill is a Humanities instructor at the University of Louisville. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, and she loves Impressionist, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist art. She’s been known to bore her friends and family with discussions about representations of gender in 19th century art. If she could only look at one painting for the rest of her life, it would be Degas’s The Star.


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