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Mother and Child on a Hammock
(Gustave Courbet)

Description

Femme au hamac tenant un enfant belongs to this phase of the Gustave Courbet’s development, strongly influenced by Romantic literature. The hammock theme may be found in two other compositions Courbet painted in his youth. The first one, entitled Le Hamac (private collection), was one of seven paintings formerly belonging to Pasteur Dulon at La Tour-de-Peilz. Unsigned and dated 1839, it was first shown in the 1966 Exhibition of Courbet’s works in private French collections. The second, Rêve de jeune fille or Femme au hamac (Winterthur, collection Oskar Reinhart), signed and dated 1844, is one of the paintings refused by the 1845 Salon. For these two paintings Courbet had found inspiration in a Victor Hugo poem, Sara la baigneuse, an excerpt from Les Orientales, published in 1829. The poem describes a nonchalant young woman sensually dreaming, lying in a hammock and bathing her feet in running water. Both works’ underlying eroticism, comparing the young woman’s curves and the languid rocking of the hammock, is nonetheless very different to our painting with its two additional figures. Although Gustave Courbet retained the same motif, a hammock suspended between two trees in the country, the subject matter is totally different.  This is the only Gustave Courbet painting in the whole listed body of the artist’s oeuvre to represent maternal love, which leads us to believe that it probably dates from around 1848. At that time Courbet, who was always discreet about his private life, fathered a little boy he was never to recognise. Désiré Alfred Emile Binet was born on September 17, 1847. His mother, Thérèse Adélaïde Virginie Binet (1808-1865), a cobbler’s daughter, was one of the painter’s models. Apparently she is the woman he lovingly shows embracing in Les Amants dans la campagne (1844, Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts). She was 11 years his senior and seems to have been his most stable yet most painful relationship. Little is known about her and the child since Gustave Courbetnever mentioned them directly in his correspondence. When Virginie returned to Dieppe with Emile in 1852, he hastily lamented to his friend Champfleury :  ‘Que la vie soit légère, puisqu’elle croit mieux faire. Je regrette beaucoup mon petit garçon, mais j’ai suffisamment à faire avec l’art sans m’occuper de ménage; et puis un homme marié pour moi est un réactionnaire.’  In 1854, he once again confided in Champfleury his pain and despair: ‘J’ai l’esprit fort triste, l’âme très vide, le foie et le cœur dévorés d’amertume (…) Vous savez que ma femme est mariée, je n’ai plus ni femme, ni enfant. Il paraît que la misère l’a forcée à cette extrémité. C’est ainsi que la société avale son monde. Il y avait 14 ans que nous étions ensemble.’ Profoundly hurt, the artist erased his former lover resting her head on his shoulder from an 1844 painting. This painting is L’Homme blessé (Paris, Musée d’Orsay). In it he transformed an evocation of their passion into a poignant vision. The end of their relationship was marked by his agony as, wounded to the heart, he exhibited a red spot on his shirt. Their son, the product of their love, remained hidden forever although Gustave Courbet cautiously evoked him in a pencil drawing (Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, dated by the museum around 1848). Unusually, he depicted a young child in the arms of its mother just as in Femme au hamac tenant un enfant. The subject represents the artist’s happiness in becoming a father and his wish to keep the birth a secret. Gustave Courbet masked this issue by portraying another woman with a toddler in the same picture. His son probably appears in two further paintings, Les Cribleuses de blé (c.1854, Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts) and L’Atelier (1848–1855, Paris, Musée d’Orsay).

The restricted dimensions and close framing of Femme au hamac tenant un enfant present the painting as a loving and paternal tribute to the two beings who probably meant the most to him. Yet in order to protect his private life Gustave Courbet, as he so often did, notably in the Besançon drawing, shrouds the subject in a cloak of ambiguity in order to conceal its true intent and maintain a degree of confusion. Indeed, he has added a little girl to the right. Her clothes and headdress are precisely detailed but the profile of her face is vague. She appears to be part of this elaborate set-up taking us inside the painting,  thus forming a link to the main subject by means of the rope tied to the hammock, which she uses to rock the two protagonists gently. Light also plays an essential part in the narrative, falling across the young girl before directing the viewer’s eye towards the mother and child. The mother, a powerful figure like a Renaissance Madonna, symbolises the receptacle or matrix of life. She wears a white pleated dress and, embracing the child, looks tenderly at him where the ray of light ends. Behind her dark hair is a red and gold cloth which, with the yellow shoes and the carpet on the hammock, is a clear reference to the Orientalism of Victor Hugo or Delacroix. The domestic rapport between mother and child finds a counterpart in the landscape where the sweep of trees forms an intimate, protective halo around this moment of bliss that the artist shares with the onlooker. To underline this feeling of harmony Gustave Courbet chose his favourite season, autumn, where Nature’s full transformation bestows a palette of both warm and cool colours.

In this early work the artist proclaims his concept of landscape in which private life is intertwined with the world at large.

 

ANNIE YACOB

 

 

Measurements
32 x 40.5 cm 12 ½ x 16 in
Type
Oil on canvas, unlined
Provenance

 Paris, private collection.

 Biarritz, Private collection.

Literature

James H. Rubin, Courbet in Love and Productive Disappointment, London, The Matthiesen Gallery, 2016.

Historical Period
Realism to Impressionism - 1840-1900
Subject
Genre or Daily Life
School
French
Catalogue
2016 - Courbet
A survey of the life and career of Gustave Courbet with particular regard to a previously unpublished work c. 1844.

(Click on image above)
Price band
$750,000 - $1,000,000