Gustave Courbet’s Reclining Nude In the Philadelphia Museum of Art are five paintings by Gustave Courbet; of all of these I found Reclining Nude (1868, Oil on canvas, The Louis & Stern Collection, 63-81-20) the most interesting. It depicts a nude woman lying on the beach beneath a billowing canopy. A dark, but tranquil sea is in the background. The sky is dark as if the final rays of the sun were disappearing over the horizon. There are a few clouds in the sky, they are dark but not threatening.
The picture is very dark in general and there is no obvious light source. The edges of the painting are so dark it is impossible to tell what the nude reclines against. A very dim light falls on the woman, who lies on her right side. The upper half of her torso is twisted to her left and her hips and legs face the viewer. Her right leg is bent slightly so her calf is beneath her straightened left leg.
The woman is not as thin as classical nudes, her hips are somewhat broad and her thighs are slightly heavy. Her arms are crossed languidly over her head. Because her arms are crossed over her head, her face is almost completely in the shadows; this shadowing covers the detail of her face in such a way that she could be almost anyone. She gazes wistfully at the ground to her left. The woman is rendered very softly and is in a very sensuous pose.
This picture would have been found scandalous for its sexual overtones as was Courbet’s La Demoiselles au bord de la Seine. A scarlet cloth lies in front of her; it has a very rumpled look which has sexual implications. The vacant, wistful look and the languid crossing of her arms suggests that she is thinking of a lover who has just left her. The careful shadowing of her facial features leads one to believe she has something to hide from public knowledge. It is not covered enough, however, for one to believe she has any shame for appearing in so public a place in such a position; this, too, would have been found scandalous in the 1860’s.
Now, however, compared to such displays of sexuality and nudity as found in magazines such as Penthouse and Playgirl or X-rated movies, the picture is perceived as a modest, proper display of sexuality. Today there is nothing offensive about the woman’s display of sexuality. One other reason that the critics and public would have found this picture offensive is that to them this is not a display of nudity, but a display of nakedness. The woman is perceived as naked rather than nude, because she is not in a classical setting or an important person portrayed in a classical setting. This is not a picture of a nude Venus rising from the sea foam or a nude Psyche with her adoring Cupid. This woman is not even a rich patroness being portrayed in one of the classical settings. This woman could be any fair-haired woman;whe is a common woman, most likely the artist’s mistress or even a prostitute.
Her nudity is for sensual display, not for classical purposes, therefore it was perceived as nakedness and therefore obscene. Though the woman in combination with her surroundings may have been offensive, there is nothing offensive about her surroundings alone. The setting is a beach at nightfall. In the foreground one sees a bright scarlet cloth lying on a dark beach. It is a very ruffly piece of cloth tossed casulally aside. In the middle ground is the woman, and whatever she reclines against. It is so dark that one cannot tell what it is, but it is painted in bold, swirling brush strokes; there is very little color other than black, aside from a few spots of red and gray. Also in the middle ground is the billowing canopy under which the woman reclines.
Upon close inspection one can see the canopy is gray and blue striped with thin stripes of scarlet. The canopy appears to be blowing gently in the wind. A loose rope sways slightly. It curves gently to the right. The background is beautifully executed.
Behind the nude are the edge of the beach, the ocean, and the night sky. The beach is very dark as is the ocean. However, if one looks closely at the ocean can see the gentle waves of the sea and two tiny sailboats on the horizon. The sky has the beauty of the actual sky as the last colors of the sunset fade over the horizon. The sky highest above the ocean is a very dark gray. In the lighter sky just below it one can see dark billowing clouds.
The sky just above the horizon is pinkish and purplish from a distance. The whole background is very tranquil, very peaceful. The coloring of the picture is somewhat disappointing. While one realizes that the time of day which is portrayed is hardly conducive to bright colors, one is still diappointed by the small range of colors used. Courbet uses black, grayu, a blue grey, and scarlet. The only thing with light coloring is the nude, but the flewh tones are very cool colors. There is only one bright color, the cool red which is repeated in the woman’s cheeks, lips and nipple.
The stripes of red in the canopy are not bright at all as they are so muted by the grays and blues. The way in which the scarlet cloth in the foreground calls immediate attention to Courbet’three-quarter inch signature in the left-hand corner almost makes one wonder if thaat one bright splotch of color wasn’t added for egotistical reasons. One remembers how the sky above the horizon seemed to have a pink or purple cast, but on closer inspection one finds that it is really a flat bluish-gray. The darkness of the color is understandable, but I believe Monsieur Courbet could have used a wider range of color. There is also little lighting in the picture but it is used more effectively than the colors. A dim light falls on the model, but it is just enough to light her sufficiently to make her stand out.
This same dim light falls on a small area of beach around her enabling one to see the rich texture of the sand. Another area of dim light is found just above the horizon, relieving one from the dark infinity of the sky. While the picture is very dark it is not totally without light. While one may find fault with the lack of a wide range of color, one cannot find fault with Courbet’s technical skills. The picture is well balanced as the outer line of the red cloth in the left hand corner repeats the line of the left side of the woman’s body and the gentle curve of the rope hanging from the canopy repeats the line of the right hand side of her body.
The dim circle of light in the foreground is echoed in the bit of dim light on the horizon, giving the picture of a deeper perspective. The juxtaposition of the woman and the canopy which falls from the right hand corner divides the canvas into three triangular shaped pieces of more or less the same size. This division brings the focal point of these triangles to the woman’s face. If one starts at the focal point, the range of one’s field of vision opens to follow the diverging lines thereby taking in the whole painting until one’s eyes reach the frame. Then one’s gaze is brought back along the lines until it converges on the face of the woman. Because the area of the top left hand corner is so dark, it puts even more emphasis on the head of the woman as a focal part. This careful, fanlike division of the picture into three similar shapes is balancing as well as enabling the artist to direct the viewer’s eyes.
If one follows these lines of vision one is more able to appreciate Courbet’s careful attention to the curves and anatomy of the woman’s body, as well as his eye for small detail such as the two tiny boats on the horizon. While many critics of Courbet’s time could not understand his choice of subject matter, they could appreciate his execution of the subject matter. Gustave Courbet’s subject matter may not have been understood or considered proper in his day, but now they are considered to be more acceptable. One, whether of the past or present, must appreciate his technical abilities; his mastery of line, form, and balance. Though his lack of color is disappointing, the picture in itself is very pleasing to look at because it is such a tran- quil, restful scene.
While Courbet was not totally appreciated in his day, he is in these times considered to be an excellent artist.