Some paintings are worth a pilgrimage. Gustav Courbets Les Baigneuses (1853) has long been such a picture, located as it is in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier. The Bathers has been as influential, if not more so, as the painters Burial at Ornans and his Artists Studio, which are housed at the Musée dOrsay. As a friend put it recently, "Theyre manifestos." Les Baigneuses is a touchstone.
But Montpellier is in the south of France, near Avignon and Nimes, 760 km from Paris and 164 km from Marseilles. Nevertheless, scholars of 19th-century painting make a point of going there. And a lot of artists over the years have done so, too. When, for example, Van Gogh was in Arles, he visited the Musée Fabre. Everyone seems to agree, its worth the trip.
w It features warhorses of art history, including the Courbet canvas by the French realist which gives the show its title, as well as pictures by artists whose reputations have gone in and out of fashion.
About this pilgrimage picture and the other large oil he would exhibit at the Paris Salon, which opened during May 1853, Courbet wrote to his family on Oct. 15, 1852, "I have also decided to do nothing but nudes for the next Exhibition. I have done [a] life-size [painting of] Wrestlers, and have just started another painting which is half done. . . ." By the time he completed the panel with a hefty nude seen from the rear and a clothed, shoeless and seated companion whose stockings are rolled down, Courbet had placed the two women near a stream in woods, which occupied most of the picture.
The Bathers was finished by Friday, Apr. 15, 1853, the day that Eugene Delacroix observed in his Journal, "I was amazed at the strength and relief of [Courbets] principal picture -- but what a picture! What a subject to choose!. . . the vulgarity and futility of the idea is what is so abominable. . . what are the two figures supposed to mean? A fat woman, back view, and completely naked except for a carelessly placed rag over the lower part of the buttocks, is stepping out of a little puddle scarcely deep enough for a footbath. She is making some meaningless gesture. . . . There seems to be some exchange of thought between the two figures but it is quite unintelligible. The landscape is extraordinarily vigorous. . . ."
Delacroix was just the first of many major French artists to be intrigued by Courbets Les Baigneuses. Others paid homage by basing their own paintings on aspects of the nude as well as her companion and the setting. On a wall of the downstairs salon at the Jas de Bouffan, his fathers house in Aix, Cézanne, in ca. 1867-69, painted Bather and Rocks, a nude standing in a stony landscape near a waterfall. Though the two pictures resemble one another, Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Joseph Rishel has identified Cézannes figure as a male rather than a female. Rishel even suggests, "The stalwart pose and physique bring Atlas or Hercules to mind."
In 1893, in the South Seas, Paul Gauguin depicted a similar but more fetching beauty in a tropical cove near a waterfall and a looming stone idol as Hina Tefatou (The Moon and the Earth). Belinda Thomson, the Edinburgh-based scholar, has noted that in his day, "Somewhat dubiously, it [was] argued that [the former stockbroker] had not gone to Tahiti in search of novel motifs, but because his spirit had strained under the fetters of European ways of seeing." A number of Gauguin paintings from this period are indebted to works by Courbet, Degas, Ingres and Manet.
And then theres Matisses Back I of 1909. This figure, like the Courbet, has a weighty, muscular body and small breasts. The Matisse sculpture can claim a lineage running back through Gauguin and Cézanne to Courbet's The Bathers, a fact that should suggest to art historians that they might want to consider the French realist as much a precursor of Modernism as Manet was.
To be sure, Edouard Manets The Surprised Nymph (1861), an important painting that predates the Dejeuner sur lHerbe, also has a connection with Courbets Baigneuse. In this Rubensesque work, a nude, with pearls around her neck and partially wrapped in a sheet, sits in the woods near a stream. Unlike the older painters bather, Manets is hardly ever seen as a secular figure. The current director of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette, described the woman ten years ago as "a nude planted in a conventional landscape and stamped with the examples of the Old Masters, in a pose and with the attributes that make her at will a nymph, Susannah, or Bathsheba." Originally, before it was cropped and as it is known from a study, the canvas featured a maidservant; set near a river, it dealt with the finding of the baby Moses. Although Courbet had painted an engaging bather liberated from religious iconography, Manet injected more traditional subject matter into his oil.
In 1867-68, when Edgar Degas executed Portrait de Mlle E[ugénie] F[iocre]: propos du ballet de "La Source," he transformed Courbets picture into a scene from a ballet. This time, three exotically dressed women sit near a pool of water. Mlle Fiocres well-made costume resembles the type of clothing his predecessors nude discarded on the ground and on tree branches near her. As in the earlier canvas, a pair of ballet shoes rests near the water. And is it just coincidental that Degas painted a horse while Courbets bather was compared to one by the Empress Eugenie? In a study for the Mlle Fiocre, the one with two nudes in a landscape, Courbets powerful imagery is also evoked.
If Cézanne, Gauguin, Manet and Degas were all interested in Courbets Les Baigneuses, it should not be surprising to find another Impressionist master to have been inspired by it. Auguste Renoirs Baigneuse (La Baigneuse au griffon) or Bather with a Terrier, executed in 1870, also tips its hat towards Courbet. Seen from the front, a nude posed as if she were a Greek goddess holds her petticoat. In a verdant setting, she is accompanied by a clothed companion; a dog rests on a pile of her garments. The terrier suggests Renoir thought to include the animal because Courbet, who often painted dogs, forgot to include one in his canvas of 1853.
Since Courbets remarkable patron Alfred Bruyas purchased it from the Salon of 1853, The Bathers has resided in Montpellier. It was on view in Paris in 1855 and in 1867 when the painter mounted his own shows of his work in the French capital. Though it has obviously been admired by some of the greatest painters of the 19th century, the large canvas is not as well known as many of Courbets other works. Only seen in the United States once before -- at the Brooklyn Museum in 1988 -- and rarely on view outside of Montpellier, Artnet Magazine readers would be remiss not to try to see this pilgrimage picture -- and other masterpieces by Courbet, Delacroix and Gericault -- at the Dallas Museum of Art (until Jan. 2, 2005) or at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (Jan. 22-Apr. 3, 2005). Be there or be square.