Ask Morgana 102: Gustave Courbet

detail from 'Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer)'

detail from ‘Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer)’

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.
(Cole Porter)

Before I begin today’s subject, may I just say that I was delighted to hear from Joy Argento, who was the subject of a recent post here. Joy emailed me to say:

ja1Hi Morgana, I just wanted you to know that I am not missing in action. I was so flattered to find that you had written about me and my artwork. I did sort of take a break from it due to life’s circumstances. I moved to South Carolina about two and a half years ago while in a long term relationship and left there several months later very much single. After a brief stay with my sister in Atlanta I moved back to Rochester. Because of all the moving around and mega life changes, my art and writing got put on hold. I have recently begun to get back into the artwork and also finished the first draft of my fourth book, which is a lesbian romance about a couple that discover they had a past life together. My recent artwork is mostly still life, but I would love at some point to get back into more lesbian artwork. I always found it very rewarding.

Just to give you an idea of Joy’s skill in realist painting, check out the detail (left) from a still life of eggs in a glass bowl.

It so happens that my subject for today is also a master of realism. Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) may be credited with initiating the 19c Realist movement as a reaction to Romanticism in painting. His monumental realist work A Burial at Ornans overturned mid-19c expectations of art, and was highly controversial. His attitude to art, life, and politics was uncompromising…

I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.’

In our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.

The title of Realist was thrust upon me just as the title of Romantic was imposed upon the men of 1830. Titles have never given a true idea of things: if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary. Without expanding on the greater or lesser accuracy of a name which nobody, I should hope, can really be expected to understand, I will limit myself to a few words of elucidation in order to cut short the misunderstandings. I have studied the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice. I no longer wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial goal of “art for art’s sake”. No! I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art – this is my goal.

… another reason why I like him!

Courbet’s Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), a detail from which is shown at the head of this post, was considered extremely shocking in 19c France. Depicting nudes in classical paintings was, of course, highly respectable; but painting a couple of reclining prostitutes showing a glimpse of underwear was unacceptable! In the 1860s, Courbet began to paint deliberately erotic pictures, for many of which ‘la belle Irlandaise’ Joanna Hiffernan was the model, as in The Woman in the Waves below.


His painting Sleep was subject of a police investigation when it was displayed by a dealer in 1872.


But perhaps his most notorious painting, by 19c standards, was The Origin of the World, which was a frank view of a woman’s sex. The model is thought to be Joanna Hiffernan again, although the hair on the subject’s head is black, rather than Joanna’s Titian red. The painting was not even exhibited publicly until a decade after the artist’s death. It has been described, even in the 21c, as ‘high art pornography’, for the frank way in which the model has lain back and pulled up her clothes.


To this day some people still regard this work as crude. To me it is much more the case that Courbet is confronting the hypocrisy of the ‘male gaze’ of his day, telling them that this – the place they came from, and the thing they lust after – is such an essential part of a woman, having everything to do with our physical essence. He could easily be seen to be honouring us by his realism.

What do you think? Email me and let me know.


Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions.

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