The role of the woman in the nineteenth-century France

Gustave Courbet’s The Bathers

The painting was made in 1853, and just before its exposition in the Salon of the same year, Gustave Courbet added a drapery on the posterior of the bather.1 The depiction consists of two female figures; one seated on the right, while observing the standing naked bather. The standing bather has her back turned to the viewer. The whole painting is highlighting the female nudity, but not in the traditional allegorical version. The standing figure is just a bather, an anonymous woman, whose nakedness is not at all revealing. Her posture is not at all overt, but closed, unintelligible and full of mystery; although naked, she is far from sexually provocative, since the signs of femaleness – such as her breasts or her genitals – are not revealed. It seems that Courbet is suggesting through his innovations (a naked woman but not a deity or an allegory, yet an anonymous woman depicted with realistic detail) a certain type of woman; she is masculine, although sexually available not sexually provocative, although an object of observation she is not easy to read, but rather difficult to decipher.

This ambiguity around the depicted female figures in Courbet’s painting could be attributed to the sociopolitical background of the period. The passive, subordinated role of the woman in the patriarchal societies was put into question from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and especially after the emergence of socialism; the Revolution of 1848 led to the Second Republic which proclaimed direct universal suffrage. Women were excluded from those proclamations, and the feminist movement begun to rise up while a minority of socialists such as Charles Fourier and the comte de Saint-Simon advocated that equality between women and men constituted a sine qua non for social progress.2 Along with an interest in those socialists’ outlooks, the early 1830s marked a revival of activity around women’s rights, and were expanded through the 1848 Revolution.3 Feminists emphasised reforms in family law and economic opportunities, formed numerous organisations and demanded equal working and civil rights with men. By the side of the male working-class which was protesting for better salaries and living conditions, were set also women workers. Feminists of that period were opposing to the corrupted capitalist system and instead, they were advocating an alternative social and moral organisation in which woman would be valued and her social and political degradation would be ended.4

Although feminism in France took a socialistic character, and was supported by male participants of the emerging French socialist movements, the Second Republic (1848), as well as the latter Commune (1871) ignored largely the demands of women for women’s suffrage as well as for civil rights, education, training and divorce.

Therefore, the profile of that woman – the woman with no substance outside her husband’s or father’s house, the “invisible flâneuse”, in Janet Wolff’s words – deriving from such complex and fluid sociopolitical backgrounds could not be less ambiguous than the one Gustave Courbet spotlighted in his paintings, and especially in his Bathers; she is mysterious, and not comprehendible by the patriarchal system, she seems weak, naked, passive (because this is how the men want to see her), but also hides very much strength in her will to change not only her pre-set subordinated role in this system, but also the unfair world.5

1 Courbet Letter to his family, 13 May 1853; in Chu, 1992: 111.

2 Powell and Childs, 1990: 17.

3 Doy, 1998: 166.

4 Ibid., 167.

5 Wolff, 1985: 37-46.

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