Saturday, April 29th 2023

by Gustave Courbet

Courbet, The Great Bather, c. 1969

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819 -1877)

The Great Bather (Female Nude on the Shore), circa 1869

Oil on original canvas.
Signed "Gustave Courbet" on the lower left corner.
On back of canvas, supplier stamp only used during the year 1869: "Ancienne Maison Ange Ottoz / Henry & Cré Successeur / Marchands de Couleurs fines / Paris / 2, rue de la Michodière".

H. 83.3 cm – W. 160 cm (about 33x63”).

In a 19th century giltwood and stucco channel frame (125x202 cm / about 50 x 80”).

Courbet / Hodler: une rencontre” from October 2019 to January 2020 at the Gustave Courbet Museum, Ornans, with the support of the Orsay Museum, Paris to mark the Courbet Bicentenary. Curated by Frédérique Thomas-Maurin with help from by Diana Blome and Niklaus Manuel Güdel. This painting was exhibited as a counterpart to The Source (1868, Orsay Museum, Paris).

- Niklaus Manuel Güdel, "Gustave Courbet – Une enquête sur le paysage," Ed. Les presses du réel, Dijon, 2019; work illustrated under nr. 70, p. 151, with a note by Niklaus-Manuel Güdel.
- Diana Blome and Niklaus Manuel Güdel, "Courbet / Hodler: une rencontre" exhibition catalog, Ed. Notari, Geneva, 2019. Painting is pictured on page 181, under nr. 124, with a caption by Thierry Savatier.

- Export License nr. 229237 issued by the French Ministry of Culture on September 22, 2021.
- Certificate nr. S00209013 issued by The Art Loss Register on November 17, 2021 attesting that the painting has never been reported as stolen.
- Condition report made by Laurence Baron-Callegari, 2023.

This painting was exhibited at the Courbet Museum in Ornans and hung alongside La Source (1868, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) for the exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the artist's birth, curated by Frédérique Thomas-Maurin, curator and director of the Courbet Museum, with help of Diana Blome and Niklaus Manuel Güdel, Director of the Gustave Courbet Society in Geneva, Switzerland.


"Nature’s beauty is superior
to any artistic convention
Gustave Courbet

A painter of forces of nature and a pioneer of grand scale realistic depictions, Gustave Courbet is best known for what is possibly one of the most controversial artworks of the second half of the 19th century: The Origin of the World (1866, Orsay Museum, Paris), a bold depiction of female genitalia. While female nudes are amongst the painter's greatest masterpieces, only fifty or so are listed in his Catalogue Raisonné by Robert Fernier, which contains over 1,000 paintings, two-thirds of which represent landscapes.

Among these fifty paintings, eighteen are « reclining nudes » - such as ours - and nine are « bathers ». While the whereabouts of six of these paintings are unknown, sixteen of them belong in museum collections, namely those of The Rau Foundation, Köln; The Otani Memorial Art Museum, Nishinomiya; The Barnes Foundation & Museum of Art, Philadelphia; The Orsay & Louvre Museums, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg; The Mesdag Collection, The Hague; The Reinhardt Collection, Winterthur, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Our Great Bather can therefore be considered as an outstanding painting that should be set in the context of the artist’s career.


The “Henry & Cré, 2 rue de la Michodière” art dealer stamp inked on the back of our Great Bather seems to suggest that it was painted around 1869 as, according to Pascal Labreuche, expert about Parisian art dealers, this stamp was used during that year only. Courbet put the last touch to his ultimate female nude painting on record, the now lost Lady from Munich - which he painted within the span of a few hours in Bavaria’s capital - at the end of December 1869 in Ornans. While it is very likely that our Great Bather was painted around the same time, pinpointing the exact location where it was painted is proving tougher: was it during the painter’s trip to Bavaria, in December in Ornans, or upon his return to Paris at the beginning of the following year?

In 1869, Gustave Courbet’s reputation and commercial success are at their peak and his influence on the Parisian art scene is significant. Born in Ornans, Franche-Comté, a region whose landscape he lovingly depicted, the painter is no longer the controversial innovator of the 1855 exhibition held at The Pavilion of Realism erected next door to the Paris Exposition. He has already painted his masterpieces A Burial in Ornans (1850, Orsay Museum, Paris), The Artist’s Studio (1855, Orsay Museum, Paris), Sleep (1866, Petit Palais Museum, Paris) and The Origin of the World. His After Diner in Ornans (1849, Palais des beaux-arts, Lille) has been purchased by the French government at the exhibition of one hundred and thirty-five paintings he held on the occasion of the 1867 Paris Exposition. In June 1870, Courbet even went as far as to refuse the cross of the Legion of Honour that Emperor Napoleon III had finally nominated him to after a ten-year wait.

Courbet was also hailed throughout Europe, wherever his work was exhibited. After his triumph with The Source (1868, Orsay Museum, Paris) in early 1869 at the Brussels Salon, the painter divided his time between Paris and Étretat, where he started working on an important series of marines. In September and October of that same year, he exhibited at the Bavarian World Fair held at the Munich Glaspalast. His Deer Hunt – The Kill (1867, Beaux-Arts Museum, Besançon), another painting that defied academic conventions due to its large, hierarchy of genres-breaking scale, received great acclaim. He was made Knight of the Order of Saint-Michael by Ludwig II of Bavaria on this occasion.

He had always known that skin painting was tricky; it is what reveals the painter’s skill.
- Jules-Antoine Castagnary

During his Bavarian stay, Courbet painted three portraits after Rembrandt, Murillo, and Frans Hals respectively. At the same time, he also started working on his last female nude painting, The Lady of Munich, which he finished painting in December in Ornans after returning to France via Interlaken, Switzerland. He was back in Paris in early 1870. When he started working on what would be his ultimate Great Bather, Courbet was already an experienced painter of female nudes, a subject he had been tackling since the age of 22 (Reclining Nude, 1841, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). He approached it very freely, at times drawing inspiration from famous Renaissance artists such as Titian or Velasquez (The Lady from Munich), sometimes painting his female nudes prudishly (The Source) and at other times in a dissolute, even sensual manner (Woman with White Stockings, 1864, Barnes Foundation, Chicago). Our Great Bather, for its part, audaciously blends realistic landscape painting with the academism of studio painting.


Large female nude paintings were first created in the Renaissance by Botticelli, Giorgione, Titian, and Vélasquez and sublimated in the 17th century by Rubens and Rembrandt. In the 1850-1890’s, they were still very much favored by official painters, be they epitomes of academism - such as Baudry, Cabanel, Bouguereau, or Gérome - or innovators such as Delacroix, Chassériau, and Manet. The Birth of Venus by Cabanel, bought by the Emperor at the 1863 Salon, finds an answer in Manet’s 1865 Olympia, whose exhibition caused uproar and which had to be guarded by French military police for order to be restored. Unsurprisingly, this subject appealed to Courbet, who depicted it again in 1866 in Sleep, an unequivocal exaltation of lesbian love.

Nonchalantly reclining and avoiding the viewer’s gaze, the model of this painting obeys contemporary artistic codes. The pose and delicacy of her portrait, which are reminiscent of "Renoir’s most beautiful faces, or Manets’ quick manner", as noted by Niklaus Manuel Güdel, are surprising. Her figure, on the other hand, is similar to those of other models painted by Courbet: wide hips and thighs; fine joints; and firm, medium sized pear-shaped breasts. Thierry Savatier even notes that the painter hints at pubic hair, whose depiction was banned at the time.

"If you admit that nudes exist in nature, then paint nymphs in a real setting, as they shall have looked - farm girls baked and tanned by the sun and rain."
Joris Karl Huysmans

As Thierry Savatier points out: "What is striking is that female nudes, which in 1868 had been the subject of important paintings by Gustave Courbet (The Source, F627; Woman with a Wave, F628; The Three Bathers, F630 or Naked Woman with a Dog, F631) completely disappeared from his body of work after 1870, only to be replaced with portraits, still life or animal paintings, and mostly landscapes." The art critic adds: "The style of this nude painting suggests that it was painted quickly with a paintbrush. It fits in neatly with a series of paintings derived from the Sleeping Venus of Venus and Psyche (F371), painted between 1864 and 1866 (Fernier 673, 527, 534, 536) and depicting, with minor differences, a female nude reclining on a white sheet by a stream running through an undergrowth." (Savatier, 2019, p. 180).


But this female nude is also a bather. Niklaus Manuel Güdel insists on Courbet's way of becoming one with the landscape, both in person and in his paintings: “Nature provides the background where Courbet has his female nudes either sprawling, sitting, or sometimes even standing. They act as metaphorical mediators between the viewer and the landscape, paving the way to the bathing subject, a classic theme in Western painting of the time, which Courbet would interpret his own way”.
An avid bather himself, this subject was all the more essential to Courbet as water is the only natural element man can become one with, as Güdel continues: "In this Great Bather painting, the model’s surrender to the undergrowth - a form of communion, the reclining woman being at one with the Earth - is shown in a dazzling manner, thanks to a seemingly innocuous double movement: that of her right hand playing with a strand of hair while her left hand nonchalantly dips into the water. This second move is the connection between the model and the river; this is how the woman becomes a bather." (Güdel, 2019, pp. 150-151).

Leaving little room to the landscape, the tight framing of the painting combines two a priori incompatible genres: the realistic - in situ - landscape painting and the classical studio pose. As usual with Courbet, the background of this painting is inspired by the forests of Franche-Comté, either in the vicinity of Ornans, at the source of the Loue river, or near Salins-Les-Bains, where Courbet had enjoyed bathing since childhood and returned to at the end of 1869.


Discovered at an anonymous Parisian auction in the fall of 2013, this Great Bather was unknown to Courbet specialists before its 2019 official presentation at the Musée Courbet, on the occasion of the artist's bicentenary. It was exhibited as a counterpart to its contemporary masterpiece, La Source, which belongs in the Musée d'Orsay collections. In his introduction to the Catalogue raisonné of Courbet's work, Robert Fernier estimated that the artist had made about 1,500 paintings by the time of his 1877 death. Based on the estimates found in Courbet's own correspondence, this figure is 30% higher than the 1,000 or so paintings that were listed by the art historian in 1977.

Robert Fernier regrets the limited information available in catalogs published between the 19th century and the 1980s. Indeed, most of the works presented at exhibitions and auctions during that time are described with a summary title description of the medium or technique used (drawing, canvas). All too often, there are no mentions of any dimensions, provenance, presence of a signature or description, and the works are rarely pictured, thus making it impossible to identify them years later.


Appointed as President of the General Supervision of French Museums by the Third Republic government in September 1870, Courbet was elected as Delegate for the Fine Arts to the Paris Commune in April 1871. In this capacity, he was linked to the May 16, 1871 dismantling of the Vendôme Column. Courbet was imprisoned after the "bloody week" which put an end to the Commune two weeks later and the press blamed him for the destruction of the column. He replied in a series of letters that he "vowed to have it re-erected at [his] own expense, by selling the 200 paintings that [he] had left". Released from prison in the spring of 1872, he returned to Ornans only to discover that his studio had been looted by Prussian troops. He then fled to Switzerland to avoid paying for the reconstruction of the Vendôme Column which he was ordered to pay for by a law enacted by the French government in May 1873. He died on December 31, 1877 on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The inventory drawn up after his death, in 1878, suffers from a lack of descriptive clarity, thus preventing researchers from precisely identifying the works listed on it a century and a half later. A single "Reclining female nude by Courbet" is listed under number 27. Similarly, the auction held at Drouot on December 9, 1881 of thirty-three paintings found in his studio, which was organized by his sister Juliette, is not sufficient to provide a good overview of his body of work. The first historical study devoted to Courbet was the work of historian Georges Riat, who drew up an initial inventory of the works of “the Master of Ornans” in 1906. Therefore, it is not unlikely that paintings by Courbet should be lost only to reappear years later. Such is the case for instance with The Origin of the World, which was discovered in 1912 when the painting first appeared on the inventory of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, despite having been painted in 1866!


Mentions of "large female nudes" in the 1996 compilation of the artist’s correspondence by Petra ten-Doesschate Chuk are scarce. In 1859-1860, Courbet writes about a painting commissioned by Baudelaire's publisher, Auguste Poulet-Malassis for a thousand francs, which he alternately calls “Femme nue” or “Femme couchée”. Similarly, in an April 28, 1868 letter, Courbet invites his art critic friend Jules Castagnary to his Paris studio "to have a look at what I have just painted, female nudes" (possibly F627, F628, F629, and F631), the number and exact description of which are unknown. However, having established that our Great Bather has been painted on an 1869 canvas, the timeline of these paintings does not match ours.

In the end, many unknowns remain. Discoveries such as this one can only happen when one possesses connoisseurship and a fine knowledge of a painter’s work. As Niklaus Manuel Güdel, President of the Courbet Society in Geneva wisely concludes: "Being unable to find a painting in the body of work of an artist is not such a rare occurrence (...) However, the extensive research to discover the history of this painting has yielded nothing. This sublime female nude, presented to the public for the first time on the occasion of Courbet’s bicentenary, fits in wonderfully with his series of paintings depicting female nudes on a wooded shore." (Güdel, 2019, pp. 149-150).

May the arrival on the art market of what is, according to all available records, the largest female nude by Courbet ever presented at public auction, lead to its purchase by a major collection, which would then acquire one of the most exciting works by the “Master of Ornans” to have been discovered in the twenty-first century.

Thomas Morin-Williams and Aymeric Rouillac
translated by Sabine Vincenot
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