Gustave Courbet – Les Baigneuses (women Bathing)

DISCUSSION broke out afresh over the Salon of 1853 where “Les Baigneuses,” “Les Lutteurs,” and ” La Fileuse” were shown.

The first of these pictures produced another scandal. It was in vain that the artist took the advice of his friends and covered the too opulent flesh of his central figure, for decency was declared to be outraged as much by the lapse of taste as well as by the unacademic figure. It is said that before the opening of the exhibition Napoleon III struck the picture contemptuously with his whip. The Empress was no less shocked. She had with difficulty been persuaded that the horses in Rosa Bonheur’s Marché aux Chevaux ” could not have the elegant cruppers of the Andalusian steeds. ” Is this also a picture of a mare?” asked the Empress, stopping in front of Courbet’s “Women Bathing.”

Mérimée circulated a quip which was no less successful by referring the judgment of the picture to M. Fleurant of the “Malade Imaginaire.” Add to this the fact that Courbet had just been ill-advised enough to disclaim his position as a pupil of M. Hesse, and to declare himself the ” pupil of Nature,” and it is easy to imagine how this Nature who had proved herself such a poor instructress was taken to task.

However Champfleury, Proudhon and Courbet’s friends were not alone in proclaiming the painter’s talent. “This fellow is a sturdy artist! ” cried Tassaert, the painter. And Paul Mantz, though he adjured Courbet to go no further, commended him for thus raising his voice against the decay of painting into neo-Greek academicism.

`What can the painter have been driving at in exhibiting this amazing piece of anatomy? ” asked Gautier. “Has he he been trying to protest against the white lies of the Paros and the Pentélique ? Is it hatred of the Venus of Milo that has made him produce this filthy body from the black water!” But, in spite of his dislike for this “obese creature with her uneven masses of fat,” the great writer admitted that “monstrous figure does contain some very fine colouring and some firm, bold drawing. The water is perfectly transparent, most skilfully and simply painted; and the landscape is full of air and freshness, and this most unfortunate picture is proof positive of a great talent gone wrong.”

“It is not so much a woman as a tree-trunk of flesh, a body covered with bark,” said Edmond About. But this same About, though he denounced this ” scandalous nude,” bade posterity to the Louvre to admire the picture along-side the work of Darer and Jordaens.

“Les Baigneuses ” is not in the Louvre, the picture was bought by Bruyas, lent by him to various exhibitions and finally bequeathed to the Montpellier Museum.