Gustave Courbet’s Muse

14 Jun

Joanna Hiffernan was an Irish artist’s model and a muse to a French painter Gustave Courbet.

1862. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1-The White Girl (girl is Joanne Hiffernan)

Joanna Hiffernan met Gustave Courbet in 1860. and went on to have a six-year relationship with him. During this period she often posed as a model for him. Though she was physically striking; tall and red haired Irish beauty, her personality was even more impressive. She was first a muse to an American-born, British-based painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler whose friends said of Joanna:  ‘She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.’ The painting above is a portrait of Joanna painted by Whistler.

However, Joanna is better known as a muse to Gustave Courbet, a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th century French painting. During the 1860s, Courbet painted a series of erotic paintings and Joanna modeled for many of them. During his three-month stay in Trouville in 1865, he attracted a following as a portraitist among the society women in this fashionable resort on the Normandy coast. There he met Joanna through acquaintance with fellow artist James Whistler who was also working in Trouville. In 1865. Courbet wrote about ‘the beauty of a superb redhead whose portrait I have begun’ and he was talking about his portrait  Portrait of Jo (La belle Irlandaise).

The portrait shows beautiful Irish red-haired women; Joanna, gazing longingly at the mirror which she’s holding in her left hand while she’s touching her long, curly red hair with her other hand. Melancholy and disappointment protrudes from her eyes as if she, although young, had not achieved what she was hoping for. She’s looking at her face; waning beauty slowly disappearing, and asking herself ‘where have the days gone?’

1866. Gustave Courbet - Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl1865-66. Portrait of Jo (La belle Irlandaise)

Le Sommeil, translated as The Sleepers or Sleep is an erotic painting painted by Courbet in 1866. Because it depicts lesbianism, the painting is also known as Two Friends (Les Deux Amies) and Indolence and Lust (Paresse et Luxure). Though originally commissioned by the Turkish diplomat and art collector Halil Serif Pasa, who was living in Paris at that time, it was not permitted to be shown publicly until 1988. as it was deemed provocative and improper. His other painting L’Origine du monde experienced the same destiny.

The painting shows two naked women lying on a bed in an erotic embrace. One of the women is brunette and the other is blonde but her hair has a reddish glow. No doubt that Joanna was the model for the blonde. Also, their skin tones are different and that just emphasizes the women’s curves and their overlapping bodies. This painting is interpreted as a realist painting for the bodies are detailed but the imperfections are not concealed.

Le Sommeil was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Delphine et Hippolyte’ from his collection Les Fleurs du mal.

1866. Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) by Gustave Courbet

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