Gustave Courbet’s Reclining NudeIn 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 womanlying on the beach beneath a billowing canopy.
A dark, but tranquil sea isin the background. The sky is dark as if the final rays of the sun weredisappearing over the horizon. There are a few clouds in the sky, they aredark but not threatening. The picture is very dark in general and there isno obvious light source. The edges of the painting are so dark it isimpossible to tell what the nude reclines against.
A very dim light falls on the woman, who lies on her right side. Theupper half of her torso is twisted to her left and her hips and legs facethe viewer. Her right leg is bent slightly so her calf is beneath herstraightened left leg. The woman is not as thin as classical nudes, herhips are somewhat broad and her thighs are slightly heavy.
Her arms arecrossed languidly over her head. Because her arms are crossed over herhead, her face is almost completely in the shadows; this shadowing coversthe detail of her face in such a way that she could be almost anyone. Shegazes wistfully at the ground to her left. The woman is rendered very softly and is in a very sensuous pose. Thispicture would have been found scandalous for its sexual overtones as wasCourbet’s La Demoiselles au bord de la Seine.
A scarlet cloth lies infront of her; it has a very rumpled look which has sexual implications. The vacant, wistful look and the languid crossing of her arms suggests thatshe is thinking of a lover who has just left her. The careful shadowing ofher facial features leads one to believe she has something to hide frompublic knowledge. It is not covered enough, however, for one to believeshe 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 magazinessuch as Penthouse and Playgirl or X-rated movies, the picture is perceivedas a modest, proper display of sexuality. Today there is nothing offensiveabout the woman’s display of sexuality. One other reason that the critics and public would have found thispicture offensive is that to them this is not a display of nudity, but adisplay of nakedness. The woman is perceived as naked rather than nude,because she is not in a classical setting or an important person portrayedin a classical setting. This is not a picture of a nude Venus rising fromthe sea foam or a nude Psyche with her adoring Cupid.
This woman is noteven a rich patroness being portrayed in one of the classical settings. This woman could be any fair-haired woman;whe is a common woman, mostlikely the artist’s mistress or even a prostitute. Her nudity is forsensual display, not for classical purposes, therefore it was perceived asnakedness and therefore obscene. Though the woman in combination with her surroundings may have beenoffensive, there is nothing offensive about her surroundings alone. Thesetting is a beach at nightfall.
In the foreground one sees a brightscarlet cloth lying on a dark beach. It is a very ruffly piece of clothtossed casulally aside. In the middle ground is the woman, and whatevershe reclines against. It is so dark that one cannot tell what it is, butit is painted in bold, swirling brush strokes; there is very little colorother than black, aside from a few spots of red and gray. Also in themiddle ground is the billowing canopy under which the woman reclines. Uponclose inspection one can see the canopy is gray and blue striped with thinstripes 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 ofthe beach, the ocean, and the night sky.
The beach is very dark as is theocean. However, if one looks closely at the ocean can see the gentle wavesof the sea and two tiny sailboats on the horizon. The sky has the beautyof 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 skyjust below it one can see dark billowing clouds. The sky just above thehorizon is pinkish and purplish from a distance.
The whole background isvery tranquil, very peaceful. The coloring of the picture is somewhat disappointing. While onerealizes that the time of day which is portrayed is hardly conducive tobright colors, one is still diappointed by the small range of colors used. Courbet uses black, grayu, a blue grey, and scarlet. The only thing withlight 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 thewoman’s cheeks, lips and nipple. The stripes of red in the canopy are notbright at all as they are so muted by the grays and blues. The way inwhich the scarlet cloth in the foreground calls immediate attention toCourbet’three-quarter inch signature in the left-hand corner almost makesone wonder if thaat one bright splotch of color wasn’t added foregotistical reasons. One remembers how the sky above the horizon seemed tohave a pink or purple cast, but on closer inspection one finds that it isreally 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 moreeffectively than the colors. A dim light falls on the model, but it isjust enough to light her sufficiently to make her stand out. This same dimlight falls on a small area of beach around her enabling one to see therich texture of the sand. Another area of dim light is found just abovethe horizon, relieving one from the dark infinity of the sky. While thepicture is very dark it is not totally without light.
While one may find fault with the lack of a wide range of color, onecannot find fault with Courbet’s technical skills. The picture is wellbalanced as the outer line of the red cloth in the left hand corner repeatsthe line of the left side of the woman’s body and the gentle curve of therope hanging from the canopy repeats the line of the right hand side of herbody. The dim circle of light in the foreground is echoed in the bit ofdim light on the horizon, giving the picture of a deeper perspective. The juxtaposition of the woman and the canopy which falls from the righthand corner divides the canvas into three triangular shaped pieces of moreor less the same size.
This division brings the focal point of thesetriangles to the woman’s face. If one starts at the focal point, the rangeof one’s field of vision opens to follow the diverging lines thereby takingin the whole painting until one’s eyes reach the frame. Then one’s gaze isbrought 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 moreemphasis on the head of the woman as a focal part. This careful, fanlikedivision of the picture into three similar shapes is balancing as well asenabling the artist to direct the viewer’s eyes.
If one follows theselines of vision one is more able to appreciate Courbet’s careful attentionto the curves and anatomy of the woman’s body, as well as his eye for smalldetail such as the two tiny boats on the horizon. While many critics ofCourbet’s time could not understand his choice of subject matter, theycould appreciate his execution of the subject matter. Gustave Courbet’s subject matter may not have been understood orconsidered proper in his day, but now they are considered to be moreacceptable. One, whether of the past or present, must appreciate histechnical abilities; his mastery of line, form, and balance.
Though hislack of color is disappointing, the picture in itself is very pleasing tolook at because it is such a tran- quil, restful scene. While Courbet wasnot totally appreciated in his day, he is in these times considered to bean excellent artist.