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New in the Galleries: Courbet's "Young Women in a Wheat Field"

Because prints and drawings are sensitive to light, they can only be displayed for short periods before they must be rotated for different works. These rotations are one of the pleasures and rewards of frequent visits to the museum as they offer the chance to see works in other media by artists whose paintings hang in the nearby galleries. This drawing by Gustave Courbet is part of a recent rotation in the “hallway” or inner gallery that features works on paper throughout the galleries of European art before 1900.

One of the most important and influential French artists of the 19th century, Courbet was a leading practitioner of Realism in France and an important stylistic forerunner for the Impressionists. A bohemian, political radical opposed to the Paris Academy as arbiters of taste, Courbet anticipated the life of the modern artist, as the First Industrial Revolution gave way to the Second.

Young Women in a Wheat Field depicts a common theme in Courbet's work—sleeping women, tightly framed and in close up. While pastoral and dreamlike, the image is also voyeuristic and charged with claustrophobic sensuality. Drawn in white chalk and lithographic crayon on a surface of wood blocks glued together, the artist evidently intended to produce a wood engraving of the work, but a print was never produced.

Fiercely independent and notoriously vain, Courbet rejected the lofty subjects and fine, smooth finish of academic paintings. His contemporary depictions of French peasant life explored and elevated themes considered unworthy of representation in academic culture.  As a prominent member of the Paris Commune in 1871, Courbet was ostracized for his radical politics, spending the final years of his life in exile in Switzerland.

See Courbet's Young Women in a Wheat Field in Gallery 223a and other works by the artist in Gallery 222.

Gustave Courbet. Young Women in a Wheat Field, 1855/56. Collection of Marilynn B. Alsdorf.