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