HIS picture takes us to the neighbourhood of ‘ Bougival, though it was at Ornans, whither the artist went to forget all the worries of his exhibition, that the first sketches for his “Demoiselles du Bord de la Seine ” were made in 1856.
The picture was finished in Paris in the following year, and shown at the Salon.
If we were able to follow Proudhon we should discover all sorts of social, moral, and psychological meanings in this picture; we should find in it the condemnation of the Second Empire; we should me in the dark beauty in the foreground a Phaedra dreaming of Hippolytus, a creature of passion now concentrated, now bursting all bounds, never sated, a vampire! We should be tempted at the cost of our very life blood to put out the fire that consumes her! We should then fly to escape the metamorphosis with which this Circe threatens us. We should see in her golden-haired friend a coldly ambitious woman, skilled in the art of investment and speculation… But we should need to expand this note to thrice its length if we were to say everything that Proudhon so easily read into this vigorous piece of painting.
Maxime du Camp’s commentary tackles the picture more closely. “Les Demoiselles … ” he said, ” are two women who no doubt set out from the Rue de Lourcine in the morning and will return there in a week. They are lying on the grass by the river. One of them is leaning against a tree and dozing, with her flabby face resting on her fleshy hand; the other is lying flat on her stomach, with her greenish unwholesome face and impudent eyes looking out of the picture. . These two creatures, more than doubtfully drawn, look like a bundle of clothes, very well painted, with arms and heads sticking out of them. They have no bodies . . . . only deflated balloons. The arm of the woman lying down, and the shawl which covers the absent parts of her body, are masterpieces of skill, and prove that, but for M. Courbet’s prepossessions, he might be a serious painter. By way of establishing a harmony with his greenish foreground, M. Courbet has painted the Seine blue! A blue Seine! In the muddy outskirts of Paris! O Realism, is this thy reality ? ”
We may cut short the traditional apostrophes of those who waxed wrath over the artist’s hew “departure,” and the lamentations of those who deplored his misled talent. A remark made by Fould,the Minister of State, as he left the Salon, expresses the official attitude with more authority : “Art,” he said, ” is on the downward path when it deserts the pure and lofty regions of the beautiful, and the traditional paths of the great masters, and follows the directions of the new school of realism and seeks to do no more than a slavish imitation of the least poetic and noble elements of Nature.