It was not unusual for Courbet to make replicas of existing paintings as demonstrated by the four known versions of his 1866 Portrait of Jo, La Belle Irlandaise. The reasons for multiple or duplicate versions of paintings simply resulted from supply-and-demand, and in the 1860s, market forces dictated Courbet’s willingness to paint replicas, especially depictions of the female nude. The Paris Salons were seeing a proliferation of this subject matter; two paintings that readily come to mind are Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, which was purchased by the State in 1863, and Paul Baudry’s The Pearl and the Wave, also submitted to the 1863 Salon and now in the Prado. At this time, there was clearly a serious demand for images of sensual, naked women, and Courbet's paintings satisfied this popular interest in both his choice of Salon subjects and in his private commissions. Excerpts from a letter referring to the collector-stockbroker, Lepel-Cointet confirm Courbet’s willingness to repeat exact compositions or comparable themes. Courbet wrote to the Marquis de Chennevières on May 12, 1866 about the sale of the Woman with a Parrot to Lepel-Cointet, and offered to paint “an exact copy” of the painting, or “similar pictures that are as attractive as that one.” (Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 280, letter 66-10). In some instances, critical discussion of Courbet’s controversial works served only to further fuel this demand. Courbet’s Venus and Psyche drew the attention of the well-known writer and critic Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve. The work had been rejected by the jury of the 1864 Salon on grounds of immorality, Courbet’s mythological title considered to provide but thin disguise to what conservative critics saw as the depiction of lesbian lovers. Saint-Beuve’s vivid description of the work, however, caught the eye of Turkish collector Khalil Bey (owner of l’Origine du Monde) who promptly requested that Courbet make him an exact copy. As it turned out, Courbet painted him a different version on a similar theme – The Sleepers (Collection, Petit Palais, Paris), (Toussaint, London edition, p. 165).
Nu couché directly relates to the Winterthur and Mesdag versions; all three paintings have similar dimensions, with variations only in the choice of background (the Mesdag nude reclines in an interior while our composition and the Winterthur version show her set in a landscape). Courbet’s model is voluptuous and sensual, not only in her recumbent pose, but also in how her form is defined by the rich handling of the paint surface. Courbet’s brushwork transforms pigment into a build-up of soft, creamy pink feminine flesh tones, which contrast with the rough, dry texture of the green foliage, clearly identifiable in the lower right of the composition and touching the model’s legs.
Please note this work has been requested for Courbet: Mapping Realism, an exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College from September 1-December 8, 2013.
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