Woman with White Stockings
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As a proponent of Realism, Gustave Courbet didn’t feel the need to wrap a nude painting up in a neat little bow of mythological narrative. 

The flagrant sexuality of a prostitute slowly redressing herself was shocking and unusual, even though it's not much different from centuries old paintings such as Venus and Cupidnudity-level wise. It’s really only context that separates an artistic nude from a pornographic one. Likely this piece wouldn’t have sat well with conservatives, but it was never put on public display in the 19th century.

Though this painting has some elements of the bather-in-a-landscape trope, Courbet makes it obvious that the scene in his painting strays far from that more innocent narrative. For one, the well-worn path in front of her has been viewed by some as a metaphor for her profession. Not to mention the somewhat "in your face" positioning of her body so that her genitals are visible.

This piece was probably never meant for public exhibition, as the subject matter suggests a private commission. Courbet had a regular customer for other erotic paintings, Khalil Bey, but the intended buyer for this piece is unknown. It may have ended up in Bey's hands though and, according to one account, Bey kept the painting locked up in a cabinet in order to keep the woman all to himself.

Nowadays, the world is so oversaturated with sexually explicit images that it’s easy to forget how difficult and expensive it used to be to acquire anything erotic. In the early 20th century, the only pornography available was circulated as 8mm film reels made for rich collectors and only seen at private showings. Roughly a century earlier, commissioning paintings such as this was probably the closest equivalent to porn so a rich patron to get their kicks. 

Another of Courbet’s nudes and commission for Khalil Bey, The Origin of the World, is also, despite the eloquent title, just a close-up of a vagina, and it too wasn’t put on public display for over a century. Marcel Duchamp saw reproductions of Origin and took inspiration from it and Woman With White Stockings for his somewhat shocking artwork Étant donnés. He even stipulated that it’s installation include an overhead vertical light to be focused on the woman’s vagina. In short, Courbet’s scandalous nudity inspired some scandalous surrealism.




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