Gustave Courbet - The Sleepers

by Alexandra Tuschka


In this particular case, we may rejoice that the year 1988 has passed and that this work may be shown in public again. For when it was exhibited by a picture dealer in 1872, it was the subject of a police report.


The picture shows two beautiful women sleeping and closely embraced. They are completely naked and relaxed. One young woman has dark hair, the other reddish curls. The latter also has slightly lighter skin. Both have made themselves comfortable on a bed with white sheets and pillows, the background is bordered by a dark blue velvet curtain. On the left, a decorative side table can be seen on which a coloured bottle, a small jar, a transparent crystal vase and a cup are placed. At the back right, one sees a decorative vase with fresh flowers. The scattered objects - beads, hair clips and blankets - are arranged to show the women's previous amorous activity and lust for each other.

What was novel was that the artist dispensed with any legitimisation for the obvious, lesbian erotic scene. We are not dealing here with a mythological or biblical scene, nor with a history painting, which would have lent the work a sublime glamour. For example, the pictorial theme of Diana and Calliste would have justified a lesbian love scene. Only the later addition of "Sloth and Voluptuousness" suggests that we are dealing with two personifications. However, here neither seems clearly more voluptuous or sluggish than the other. But this epithet lends a moral intention to the work by alluding to the supposed depicted depravity.

The red-haired woman was probably Courbet's muse, the Irishwoman Joanna Hiffernan, who was also painted (and loved) by various of Courbet's contemporaries. No model has yet been clearly identified in the dark-haired one.


Courbet was much criticised by his contemporaries for his realistic, unadorned painting style. He was perceived as confrontational and vulgar. However, it was not immediately exposed to this criticism. It was painted, with the famous "Origin of the World", as a commission for the private collection of the Turkish ambassador Khalil Bey in Paris. He had been living in the capital since 1860 and had assembled a large collection of paintings from his own century, including works by Delacroix, Ingres and Rousseau. Many of them had erotic motifs. The naked, unadorned bodies irritated the public. But - as with almost all scandals - this depiction also inspired other artists, the motif was often copied and paved the way for a more shame-free approach to lesbian love.



Gustave Courbet - The Sleepers - Sloth and Voluptuousness

Oil on canvas, 1866, 135 × 200 cm, Petit Palais, Paris


Gustave Courbet - Jo, the Beautiful Irish

Oil on canvas, between 1865 and 1866, 55.9 x 66 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York