Soviet Postcards, Part 3: Thomas Couture

As you may have guessed from his name, Thomas Couture (1815-1879) was not a Soviet artist. In fact, he had come and gone well before the Bolshevik Revolution. The reason one of his works appears on a Soviet postcard is that it is one of a massive collection of art works housed at the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Pip already did a post here featuring this image, but I wanted to add this supplementary information.

The State Hermitage (Госуда́рственный Эрмита́ж) is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great. Its collections currently comprise over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The museum also boasts several exhibition centers abroad. There is quite a bit online about this institution including video, but you can find the most general information here.

This piece translates as “The Little Bather”.

Thomas Couture - The Little Bather (1849)

Thomas Couture – La petite baigneuse (1849)

It is apropos that Thomas Couture’s work should be so highly regarded by a foreign institution as he always felt he was not adequately recognized for his innovative technique in his native France. Once he became a success, he opened an independent atelier, accepting his own students, in an attempt to challenge the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1867, he published a book on his own ideas and working methods. You can read more details here.

The State Hermitage official website (English)

Deflowered: Loss of Virginity in Art

Prior to the twentieth century sexuality in art was rarely expressed openly but was instead couched in symbolic terms or merely hinted at in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the wrong people, namely church leaders and conservative secular powers. So it was with the theme of lost virginity. Pre-Victorian girls generally were married off, and consequently surrendered their sexual innocence, not long after they reached puberty (it was only around the nineteenth century that the concept of adolescence as an extended period of childhood really took hold—before this puberty meant adulthood and everything that went with it.)Thus, when loss of virginity was dealt with in pre-Victorian and Victorian art, it was framed symbolically, and the girls are frequently represented as quite young.

One of the most common symbols of this theme was the girl dipping her toe into or wading in water, in essence testing the sexual waters. Perhaps the earliest painted example (if we do not count the various paintings of Susanna, who was already married by the time of her bathing scene and so cannot be counted as virginal) is Joseph-Désiré Court’s Young Girl at the Scamander River, painted in 1824. In it we can see that the girl is barely pubescent, her breasts just beginning to bud, and she is being helped into the water by a muscular youth, who already has one foot in the water himself:

Joseph-Désiré Court - Young Girl at the Scamander River (Nymph and Faun Bathing) (1824)

Joseph-Désiré Court – Young Girl at the Scamander River (Nymph and Faun Bathing) (1824)

Wikipedia: Joseph-Désiré Court

Before Court’s painting came Étienne Maurice Falconet’s sculpture Bather; the girl is older here but still quite youthful:

Étienne-Maurice Falconet - Bather (1757)

Étienne Maurice Falconet – Bather (1757)

Wikipedia: Étienne Maurice Falconet

The trend continued into the Victorian era:

Paul Peel – The Little Shepherdess (1892)

Paul Peel – The Little Shepherdess (1892)

Wikipedia: Paul Peel

Jules Joseph Lefebvre - Chloe (1875)

Jules Joseph Lefebvre – Chloe (1875)

Jules Joseph Lefebvre: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Jules Joseph Lefebvre

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - La gue (The Ford) (1895)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Le Gué (The Ford) (1895)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: William-Adolphe Bouguereau

A few artists even extended the theme to even younger girls:

Georges Jacquot - Jeune nymphe descendant dans l'eau

Georges Jacquot – Jeune nymphe descendant dans l’eau

Wikipedia: Georges Jacquot

Paul Émile Chabas – The Bather

Wikipedia: Paul Émile Chabas

Within this symbolic artistic dialogue about virginity we could also include Thomas Couture’s painting The Little Bather, who is so young that, not only has she not yet stepped into the water, no water is even visible around her. Other symbols of her innocence reinforce the concept, including an uneaten green apple (an allusion to the Garden of Eden), the white frock she’s sitting on and a crucifix:

Thomas Couture - The Little Bather (1849)

Thomas Couture – The Little Bather (1849)

Wikipedia: Thomas Couture

Another major symbol of virginity lost was the broken water vessel, which had its roots in the late Renaissance. This tradition was exemplified by Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s The Broken Pitcher. There are a handful of cues here that the girl has just come from her first sexual tryst. The most overt is the nipple which coyly peeks from the top of her dress. There is also the fact that, as per Robert Herrick’s poem, she has “gathered her rosebuds”—that is, she is making use of the advantages of her youth. But, of course, it is the titular broken pitcher itself that signalled her lost innocence most effectively to the viewer.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - The Broken Pitcher (1849) (1)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Broken Pitcher (1849) (1)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - The Broken Pitcher (1849) (2)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Broken Pitcher (1849) (2)

Wikipedia: Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Bouguereau continued the trend with his painting of the same name, but unlike Greuze’s sweet and content girl, Bouguereau’s girl appears to be saddened by the loss. Freud would not have missed the phallic implications of the spigot in this painting either:

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The Broken Pitcher (1891)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – The Broken Pitcher (1891)

Ramon Casas i Carbó depicted deflowering slightly more literally in his Flores Deshojadas, where the girl lies amidst a floor strewn with shed flower petals:

Ramon Casas i Carbó – Flores Deshojadas (1894)

Wikipedia: Ramon Casas i Carbó

One of the most blatant examples of the lost virginity theme in art is also one of the most famous, Paul Gauguin’s The Loss of Virginity. The piece, with its bright modernist blocks of color and its in-your-face context, seems to be the final artistic statement on the matter:

Paul Gauguin - The Loss of Virginity (1890-91)

Paul Gauguin – The Loss of Virginity (1890-91)

Paul Gauguin: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Paul Gauguin

Indeed, artistically I suppose all that can be said about young girls’ loss of virginity (in our increasingly self-conscious and paranoid postmodern world) that won’t cast suspicion on the artist must be filtered through the lens of satire:

Mike Cockrill - Broken Pitcher (2007)

Mike Cockrill – Broken Pitcher (2007)

Mike Cockrill (Official Site)