Courbet’s Femme nue couchée
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Femme nue couchée, 1862. Oil on canvas. 29 1/2 x 38 1/4 in. (74.9 x 97.1 cm.)
Estimate: $15,000,000-25,000,000. This work is offered in The Artist’s Muse: A Curated Evening Sale on 9 November at Christie’s in New York
When Gustave Courbet painted Femme nue couchée he was doing so under the weight of the tradition of the female nude. In particular he was painting under the shadow of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or Titian’s Venus of Urbino, perhaps the peak of this subject. They had created a practice that deified women into impossible heights and established a tradition that held many artists in its thrall.
When Courbet first showed Femme nue couchée in the 1862 Salon it hung on the wall for six minutes. It was so radical the establishment couldn’t handle its raw power and shocking realism. Everything about this painting was designed to be an affront to the Establishment.
Firebrand revolutionary, political activist (taking part in the 1869 and 1870 protests in Paris), inventor of Realism, Courbet was not just painting the body of a woman but getting at a reality — a presence — that no one had achieved before. He wanted to paint the truth of flesh both in homage to and trumping of the Old Masters. In painting Femme nue couchée, he was tearing down the veneer of respectability that the Establishment had erected around the female nude and challenging the way they looked at the world. He was creating a new language of the nude.
Modigliani’s Nu couché
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Nu couché, 1917-1918. Oil on canvas. 23 5/8 x 36 1/4 in. (59.9 x 92 cm.). Estimate Upon Request. This work is offered in The Artist’s Muse: A Curated Evening Sale on 9 November at Christie’s in New York
Modigliani’s Nu couché shows what happens when an artist takes up the baton of the new and re-creates it in their own image. Modigliani’s Great Nudes series of the First World War are, like Courbet’s, a taking on and a besting of the tradition of the nude.
VIDEOAmedeo Modigliani’s Nu couchéWatch video
At its heart, however, is not an attempt to present every ounce of flesh in vivid realism but a response to the world, an attempt to make the nude important enough to stand as a riposte to the horrors outside the studio. It is a reclamation of beauty, of the possibility of art in a fallen, war-torn world, a facing down of the Establishment. It is a work that reaches the lofty heights of Modigliani’s long-held ambition to create a sublime sculptural icon in the form of a woman — what he called a ‘column of tenderness’ — while acknowledging the gritty reality of his bohemian life as an impoverished émigré eking out an existence in a poor district of Paris.
Freud’s Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa
Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (detail shown top), 1989-1991. Oil on canvas. 39 x 35 5/8 in. (99 x 90.5 cm.). Estimate: $20,000,000-30,000,000. This work is offered in The Artist’s Muse: A Curated Evening Sale on 9 November at Christie’s in New York
Painting a nude continues to be a fraught decision. As well as the technical problem of fixing the elusiveness of flesh it is a subject that is almost impossible to view without acknowledging the politics of gazing at a woman. Lucian Freud acknowledged his debt to Courbet when he looked at Les Baigneuses in the Musée Fabre, ‘I like Courbet. His shamelessness. Since I hadn’t his ability or facility, my paintings went wrong slowly,’ he wrote in a letter.
FEATUREBella and the Brigadier — two major portraits by Lucian FreudRead more
This debt saw perhaps the greatest 20th and 21st century painter of the human body engage with the flesh through a careful building up of paint on the canvas. As this portrait of his daughter, Bella, shows so exquisitely in the hands of this master the nude becomes — perhaps in just as political act as his predecessors — a focus of intimacy, a passionate plea for the personal, the detailed and the attentive. Just as with Courbet, the body becomes a modern statement of the individual. It is a startling, humanisisng, re-invention of the female nude, transformed from object of obsession into a figure of modernity: a modern Olympia.
For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily