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Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine

Gustave Courbet, 1856-57
Musée du Petit Palais, Paris


Linda Nochlin comments on the symbolism of clothing in Courbet’s Young Ladies :

“Courbet’s representation of the white-clad fallen woman in the foreground of The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine…lends itself quite nicely to a pejorative reading within the codes defining nineteenth-century female decorum. Is it a mere coincidence that the gorgeously painted cashmere shawl in the foreground re-echoes the position and function – veiling yet calling attention to the sexual part of the body – of the similar shawl draped about the hopes of the heroine of Holman Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, a supreme example of Victorian morality painting on the theme of the fallen woman?”

Linda Nochlin, “Courbet’s Real Allegory: Rereading the Painter’s Studio,” Representing Women (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 138. 


Petra Chu comments on the absence of contemporary commentary about the dark-haired women presentation in her underclothes:

“It is puzzling that none of the contemporary reviewers of the painting addressed the déshabillé of the dark-haired woman. Is it that male critics were so little attuned to the details of fashion that they confused underwear with the newly fashionable white dress of the mid-1850s? Or was there a conscious or unconscious hesitation to address a topic for which the means of a bi-gendered public discourse had not yet been created? For sure, underwear was commonly depicted and discussed in women’s magazines in all the technical jargon necessary to explain the details of its complex construction…But the meaning of these words must have been lost on most men, whose vocabulary for women’s underwear was more readily found in dictionaries of slang.

‘Clearly, Courbet does not understand anything about women,’ Champfleury wrote to Max Buchon with reference to The Young Ladies of the Seine. Was it because the critic was mystified by the déshabillé, which could be interpreted as a gesture of seduction as well as one of defiance (a feminist rebellion against the rule that forbade women to shed any part of their elaborate clothing, while it allowed men to take off their jackets and vests for greater comfort)? Or was he puzzled by the incongruity of these femmes galantes, urban types par excellence, with their bouquets of wildflowers, emblematic of artlessness and innocence?” Or, to suggest yet another possibility, did Champflelury feel, as [Pierre-Joseph] Prudhon did, that there was something unsettling about the ‘slightly masculine’ (légèrement virils) features of the brunette, whom Prudhon associated with Lélia, the creation as well as the alter ego of George Sand?

All these ambiguities of Courbet’s painting seem comparable to the attempts of contemporary writers to erase or, at least, confound the boundaries between masculinity and femininity.”

Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, The Most Arrogant Man in France. Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture (Princeton-Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press, 2007), 122.

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Pál Szinyei Merse, Lovers, 1870 (Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest)

About the Artist

Born: Ornans, 10 June 1819
Died: La Tour-de-Peliz, Switzerland, 31 December 1877
Nationality: French