“Two days there. I looked at the Courbets (and those Géricault limbs) a lot: Les Baigneuses, that marvelous nude going into the forest, like a rugger player pushing off others, lots of foliage, and the woman beside her, one stocking off, one at her ankle. I like Courbet. His shamelessness. Since I hadn’t his ability or facility, my paintings went wrong slowly.” Thus wrote Lucian Freud about his visit to Montpellier in 1962 (William Feaver, Lucian Freud, 2002, p. 29). Freud’s debt to Courbet emerged over the succeeding decades, as the émigré German painter secured an ever higher place in the pantheon of his adopted country. And yet, as with Courbet, Freud’s work met with opposition, and only in recent years has his achievement come to be fully appreciated. The legacy of Courbet’s Realism (capitalized to acknowledge the painter’s ground-breaking manifesto) includes brilliant admirers - Delacroix, Manet, van Gogh and Freud - but it is not a simple one, and is delivered as much by subject as by style. That the present generation of artists, such as Tracey Emin, continue to acknowledge Courbet’s radical contribution is testament to his power.
This now celebrated work has an important place within a series of pivotal paintings of nudes, spanning the early 1850s to the late 1860s, that both engaged but also challenged the male gaze: pivotal within the trajectory of his career, and pivotal in facilitating the breach in French painting of the 1860s. A voluptuous though not Rubensesque model, probably Léontine Renaude, lies back on a bed, her head turned half in shadow, accentuating a deep, possibly post-coital quiet, one stocking free of the garter. Painted a half-century before Freud’s grandfather decoded the unconscious meaning of doors and windows, the symbolism of Courbet’s folded red curtain, swept-aside to reveal a bushy landscape below a pink-tinged sky, seems not especially obscure.
Femme Nue Couchée was roughly contemporary with Femme nue au chien (Musée d’Orsay), loosely following an erotic painting by Fragonard of the 1770s (Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, exhibition catalogue, p. 356), followed two years later in 1864 by the Barnes Foundation’s La Femme aux bas blancs, in which the painter simultaneously teases the male gaze both above and below, as it were. Then in 1866 came another full length nude, La Femme au perroquet (Metropolitan Museum of Art), encountered this time from an unconventional angle, her tresses falling like water towards the viewer, and her features composed in mysterious ecstasy; as well as the scandalous, overtly lesbian Le Sommeil (Musée du Petit Palais); and, famously, the ultimately difficult painting - for the 19th century: L’Origine du monde, a virtuoso depiction of the female body, focusing on her genitalia and pubic hair, inspired by banned photographs for the stereoscope taken by Auguste Belloc at the beginning of that decade (op. cit., pp. 383-84).
Both Le Sommeil and L’Origine du monde were commissioned by Khalil-Bey, a wealthy Turkish-Egyptian diplomat, who temporarily retired to Paris in the 1860s. Khalil-Bey’s collection of some hundred works included Ingres’s celebrated Le Bain Turc (Musée du Louvre) also of 1862, and Delacroix’s Assassination of the Bishop of Liège, ca. 1827 (Musée du Louvre), but it was all short-lived, being sold in 1868 to pay his gambling debts. Le Sommeil and L’Origine du monde were, unsurprisingly, excluded from the sale catalogue. The latter was then further hidden from public gaze for a century. Prior to its acquisition by the French state in 1995, it was owned by Baron Ferenc Hatvany and then Jacques Lacan, the latter concealing it behind two doors: the first of which, created for Khalil-Bey, was an unadventurous view of a fortress (nicely symbolic of the secret within), probably reworked by Courbet’s assistant Cherubino Pata; the second, however, was a more overt tribute by André Masson, an outline sketch of the underlying nude.
By 2007, L’Origine du monde had become the second most reproduced image in the Musée d’Orsay’s collection, after Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette (Ségolène Le Men, Courbet, 2008, p. 232). As Le Men puts it: “The about-face in terms of the public presentation of The Origin of the World was made possible on the one hand by the interpretation put forward by American art historians [e.g. Linda Nochlin] and gender studies specialists, and on the other by the picture’s admission into the national heritage. Yet the change can also be attributed to a late twentieth-century shift in mentalities and expectations that, by according the gender issue the status enjoyed by the social question in the nineteenth century, legitimated the work’s entry into the museum, its acceptance into mass culture in the age of globalized circulation of images, and its inclusion within the purview of contemporary art” (op. cit., p. 234).
Returning to the Femme Nue Couchée, Laurence des Cars reflects on this critical Courbet painting: “Here the artist undertakes a fresh interpretation of the classical theme of the reclining female nude as established in the Renaissance, and very few of his pictures make so much of their filiation. Courbet’s vast visual culture - to make the point yet again - allowed him to muse on such great examples of the genre as Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), Jean Cousin’s Eva Prima Pandora (Paris, Musée du Louvre), Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister), and Nicholas Poussin’s Venus Spied on by the Shepherds (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister)”; des Cars then acknowledges Theodore Reff’s observation about the recent (for Courbet) continuity of this Renaissance tradition, through Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (ca. 1800, Museo Nacional del Prado), the first painting publicly to depict pubic hair (Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, exhibition catalogue, cat. no. 173, p. 358).
By the turn of the 19th century, the French academic tradition had, to some extent, become an international style, witnessed by the American John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, 1809-14 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), which like Courbet’s Femme Nue Couchée, engages in the business of coming to terms with illustrious Renaissance predecessors. For Vanderlyn, to address Titian was to assert America’s equality with Europe, but his vision was profoundly associated with classical mythology and the ‘Ideal’, stimulated not least by antiquarian excitement around newly appreciated Greek sculptures (when Ariadne was painted, the Parthenon sculptures brought to London by Lord Elgin were stored at Burlington House).
For Courbet and Manet, however, the older masters had, in some critical way, to be trumped. Des Cars sums Courbet’s achievement well: “For in addition to the feat of plasticity she represents, the Femme Nue Couchée occupies a prominent place in the dialogue that sprang up between the works of Courbet and Manet and which was such a potent force in French painting in the 1860s, especially in respect to the female nude. This canvas is among those in which Courbet generates a new relationship with tradition, finding a truly modern balance between homage and iconoclasm, perpetuating the art of the masters of the past, and paving the way for the thematic and visual innovations of a new generation of painters” (op. cit., p. 359).
But this august tradition was truly daunting. It had many willing French water-carriers, even in Courbet’s own time, but taking it on afresh remained a real problem. Painted the same year as Femme Nue Couchée, Ingres’s Le Bain Turc set an immensely high bar in the depiction of the female nude. Yet Courbet was, as we know, seeking anything but an orientalist fantasy; he was after the mystery of presence, as depicted through flesh, mass - almost smell - the sense of a real person before us. Femme Nue Couchée emphatically opposes recreating the smooth, marble-like flesh of Salon heroes such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose orientalist The Slave Market (ca. 1867) not only asserted the possessiveness of the (European male) viewer’s gaze, but of men over women generally. Dominique de Font-Réaulx cites Jules Castagnary, writing five years after Courbet’s death that: “The nude had always worried him. He had always known that flesh is the painter’s stumbling block, the point on which you prove yourself a master….This is the fatal attraction and the decisive test….” (op. cit., p. 336). He had succeeded better than anyone in “getting the feel of flesh….so difficult to render; there is this creamy white, uniform without becoming pale or matte; this mingling of red and blue that breathes imperceptibly; this blood, this life” (op. cit., p. 338).
Starting with his Bathers, the picture that Lucian Freud first saw at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, Courbet’s tremendously important series of nudes poses questions to us about the male artist’s relationship to his models (as it certainly also did to Manet), as experienced through the paintings. Manet was a great admirer of Courbet but a major competitor also, a truly reflective practitioner of avant-garde painting. The primary subjects both of the Musée d’Orsay’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862-63) and Olympia (1863) look out at the viewer - in a sense - as equals, forestalling one-sided invasion. With Olympia this was truly transgressive, since obvious visual clues informed the viewer that the subject was a prostitute, whose unexpected defiance in mid-19th century Paris was socially unnerving. Courbet took a contrasting route. Michael Fried, writing about the artist’s “Femininity” has considered the degree to which Courbet subverted the conventional painter’s gaze for an alternative that empathized/identified with the female subject (Courbet’s Realism, 1990, pp. 189-222). With explorations of gendered gazes by so many more artists during the past hundred and fifty years, it is worth bringing into play here Jeff Koons’s Hand on Breast photograph in the present sale, in which the (male) artist inserts himself into the image (and in others of the series, physically into the model, his then wife). Both actors lock the viewer’s gaze, in ironic tribute both to Courbet and Manet.
Courbet’s self-championship, his undertaking to become a living example of the Realist manifesto, his political activism and its painful consequence of exile, is perhaps the easier part of his complex negotiation with modernity. What is somewhat harder is to grasp the range of his enterprise, and the manner in which apparently different subjects and themes – certainly according to the 19th century canon – are interlaced in a manner that gives real coherence to his overall corpus. Hence Fried’s meditation on the relationship of the nudes to his landscapes (vaginas, clefts and caves).
If Courbet turned to Goya, then van Gogh drew on both, admixing realism and his relentless semi-abstract mark-making almost brutally in his observation of a reclining nude prostitute (Barnes Foundation). Whether van Gogh intended to make his own Maja so very unsensual, or whether he saw her as the face of contemporary transactional sex (as Dix and Grosz were to depict in Berlin), in its truthfulness this remains a tough picture, as does Courbet’s The Origin.
Like Matisse’s marvelous Odalisques, Modigliani’s Femme Nue Couchée, in this sale, is distant from the Realist project but, by drawing ultimately on the Venetian Renaissance, they share a source with the Courbet, and with Freud’s picture of his daughter Bella naked on a couch (also offered in this sale). In Freud’s case this lineage is mediated by Courbet, a fact driven home not only by his magisterial Standing by the Rags (Tate) but also by a witty 1992 photograph, taken by Bruce Bernard, of Freud and Leigh Bowery posing in an homage to L’Atelier du peintre of 1854-55, the 19th century master’s assault on the sensibilities of the Paris art establishment, which was displayed by Courbet in his own, irritatingly proximate exhibition to the 1855 Salon, after its rejection from the same.
Femme Nue Couchée has a further story, which brings it to the present sale. In 2007 it appeared in public for the first time in fifty years, shown at the opening of Gustave Courbet in the Grand Palais, Paris. Even then the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition’s second venue, couldn’t confirm that the painting would travel to New York the following spring. Yet it did, finally resolving a dark chapter that had engulfed the picture since the Second World War. The story is well told by Konstantin Akinsha (ARTnews, February 1st, 2008).
Femme Nue Couchée was acquired by Baron Ferenc Hatvany from the Berlin dealer Paul Cassirer in 1912, the same year that he purchased L’Origine du monde from the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. Scion of a well-established, wealthy Hungarian Jewish family, Hatvany had studied painting at the Académie Julien, and went on to form a distinguished collection of modern art that included significant works by Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro and Renoir, housed at his villa outside Budapest.
Confiscated by the Hungarian Revolutionary Government in 1918, Ferenc Hatvany’s collection was safely returned to him, to be visited and admired during the inter-war years by such luminaries as Thomas Mann. In 1942, after the bombing of Budapest by the Allies, Hatvany deposited 350 works in the vaults of three city banks, under the names of employees, and then went into hiding for the remainder of the war. His villa was occupied and looted both by the SS and Hungarian Nazis, and was finally razed.
The subsequent fate of the paintings was a complex one. When the Soviet army liberated Budapest, they looted the city, ‘officially’ and also privately. Hatvany’s paintings were removed from the vaults by privateers, and a number have remained in institutions in Russia, including the Pushkin in Moscow. Hatvany did however succeed in buying back ten works in 1946, including Ingres’s Small Bather, now in the Phillips Collection, and L’Origine du monde, which sold through auction to Lacan in 1955. Going into exile after the Communist invasion, the Baron died in Paris in 1958.
Femme Nue Couchée resurfaced in 2000, in the hands of a Slovakian art dealer, who of course had no true title to the work, but the advantage of possession. The story involved a 1945 shipment of paintings east to Russia, a sick military commander, a stop in Slovakia, and the reward of Femme Nue Couchée for successful treatment by a local physician, who passed away in 1989. For several years, the Commission for Art Recovery (CAR) in New York, founded by Ronald Lauder, attempted to broker a deal with the dealer, who made extended and unsuccessful attempts to sell the work first in Budapest, and then London and Austria. A reward offered by CAR in 2005 was widely publicized in Slovakia, rendering sale in that country near impossible. Eventually, a deal was struck, and the Courbet left Bratislava for Vienna, to be restituted finally to the Hatvany heirs.
Courbet’s Femme Nue Couchée played a key part in the dramatic revolution in painting in mid-19th century Paris. It is a remarkable painting that, in its unsparing and still relevant engagement with the truth of the figure, will resonate with a new audience of artists and viewers.