It is rare in art to see a beautiful face on its side. The oddness diverts viewers into appreciating the subtle modelling of the head and exposed neck, and the creamy smoothness and delicate hues of the skin. The tender painting of the flesh, with very soft brushstrokes, contrasts with the frothy lace collar and with the looser approach elsewhere, appropriate in a preparatory study.
There is no escaping the look in the figure’s eyes, and in the finished painting (in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris) people were quick to interpret it as sexual. ‘She lies full length … pressing her burning bosom to the ground,’ wrote Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French critic of the time; ‘her half-closed eyes are veiled in erotic reverie … There is something of the vampire about her … Flee, if you do not want this Circe to turn you into a beast’.
We can relish the painting’s interplay between ochre and blue, but at the time Gustave Courbet’s subject matter and painting style were regarded as technically and morally coarse. As a leading Realist he aimed to present ordinary people as they really were, not in the idealised way of academic art
nor in the artificially heroic manner of the Romantics.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008