Rejects and Scandal: Controversial 19th Century Feminine Painting
Nineteenth century France had a long established culture of fine art. Artists could submit their work for judgement to the Académie des Beaux-Arts (or the Academy of Fine Art) in Paris, who would deem an artwork worthy or unworthy of celebration. If the Academy approved of your work, it would be exhibited in the French Salon, where public and private collectors would gather to buy new art. Oftentimes, the Academy would grant commission to artists to continue their work on the behalf of the French government. To be accepted by the prestigious and wealthy Academy meant overall bigger and better opportunity for artists.
However, not all art fit nicely within the Academic sphere. Many of the artists contemporary audiences regard as the greatest of their time were rejected by the often narrow and traditional Academy. Others were accepted by the Academy and exhibited, only to have their work scandalized by the public and critics. In 1863, the first Salon des Refuses (or Salon of the Rejected) began. This was a salon dedicated to exhibiting the artworks rejected by the Academy, where many of this curation's paintings were first exhibited. The common traits among many of these rejected and scandalized pieces were the ways women were painted. These pieces dealt particularly with female sexuality and independence and represented them in the paintings by portraying prostitution, nudity, and the female form to illustrate a possibly changing view of women as modernization took hold in Europe. Each of these pieces uses women, in some way or another, as a rebellion against narrowness or old ideas.
Edouard Manet. Olympia. 1863. Oil on canvas. 130 x 190 cm. Musée d'Orsay (Paris).
Although considered one of Manet’s most prized works, Olympia was rejected from the Salon in 1863. It was displayed instead at the Salon des Refuses (or the Salon of the Rejected) which exhibited art rejected by the French Academy.
In Olympia, we see a nude woman lounging on a cushion bed, attended by a clothed woman holding a basket of flowers. Her nudity did not offend audiences, but rather her nudity in relationship to other parts of the painting. Many critics understand her to be a prostitute – a departure from the classical Venus nudes that were typically successful in the French Academy. Her bracelet, the oriental shawl, her pearl earrings, and the orchid in her hair indicate ostentatious luxury and the black cat was a symbol of prostitution. But the most affronting part of Olympia is her gaze, staring directly at the viewer and forcing them to reckon with her.
John Singer Sargent. Madame X (or Madame Pierre Gautreaux). 1883-84. Oil on canvas. 208 x 109 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (16.53).
Madame X is one of two paintings in this curation that was selected to be shown in a Salon. However, audiences had extreme reactions. Some adored the portrait, but many thought Madame X was aghast. (One reviewer used the word “monstrous.”) All of the publicity embarrassed the aristocratic Gautreaux family, who demanded the painting be removed from the Salon. Reluctantly, Sargent agreed.
The first thing a viewer often notices about Madame X is John Singer Sargent’s use of contrast. Madame Gautreaux’s pale skin against a brown background. Upon close inspection, you may notice the details of the lavender shadow of her neck and the pale pink of her ear. Gautreaux’s ivory skin next to the black of her dress emphasizes the deep plunge of her neckline and the black dress against the brown background emphasizes her figure, accentuated by a corset. These details highlight a sense of sensuality and boldness in the portrait.
|(Side Note: This is another Sargent portrait: The Lady with the Rose (1882). What is different about The Lady with the Rose and Madame X? What different things is Sargent saying about these women via visual language?)|
Edouard Manet. Luncheon on the Grass. 1862-63. Oil on canvas. 208 x 264.5 cm. Musée d'Orsay (Paris).
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Luncheon on the Grass was disliked by the Academy for many reasons, though mainly for the confusing perspective of the painting and the questions it raises about gender and propriety. It was featured in the Salon des Refuses along with Olympia.
Luncheon on the Grass has many strange features. The foreground has a mini-still life, with a bread basket and much of one of the women’s clothing. In the background, a too-large woman bathes. You may also notice that there are virtually no shadows in the scene, making it feel as though it is in a studio rather than outdoors. The painting raises many questions that require interpretation: Why is the woman naked while the men are not? Is she looking at us or beyond us? Why did Manet choose to paint the bathing woman so large? What does Luncheon on the Grass wish to say about gender relations and connection to nature?
James McNeill Whistler. Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. 1861–62. Oil on canvas. 215 x 108 cm. The National Gallery of Art.
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl was rejected from the Royal Academy in London. Later, Whistler submitted it to the French Academy, where it was rejected again. It appeared alongside Manet’s work in the Salon des Refuses.
The painting shows a red-headed girl standing on a wolf-skin rug on top of a floral carpet. Whistler takes great care in painting the layers of white fabric on the girl and in the background. Many critics interpreted the painting as depicting a loss of innocence, noting her loose hair and the wolf’s head staring at the viewer. Rumors also circled that she was the infamous London courtesan, Catherine “Skittles” Walters. However, Whistler believed strongly in the “art for art’s sake” philosophy and vehemently held that the painting existed only as a formal exploration of color and design. The White Girl gazes at the viewer, making them interpret her for themselves.
Gustave Courbet. Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine. 1857. Oil on canvas. 96.5 x 130 cm. The National Gallery of Art.
Demoiselles du bord de la Seine or Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine was exhibited in the French Salon in 1857. The version you see is one of several version made by Courbet. Here, two girls lay in the grass underneath the shade of the trees. However, these girls are, specifically, city girls, who are shown enjoying nature – a newer concept in the mid-1800s as fascination with escape from modern life began to grow. These girls actualized this desire for leisure in nature for modern viewers.
Despite it’s approval with the Academy, scandal revolved not around nudity, but around the minutiae of the subject matter. Audiences were stunned upon seeing the undergarments of the girl in the foreground, which was seen as something far more scandalizing than nudity. The upturning of dress fabric and the dim, soft color palette contributes to a lingering sensuousness in this composition.