Orsay and Courbet

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8/5/23 - Art Market and Museums - France - On 4 June, the Rouillac auction house will be offering a painting, La Grande Baigneuse, described as "the largest nude by Courbet to be presented at auction" and even "his last nude".
This work was the subject of numerous articles in the general press and even in some of the specialist press. At the press conference organised by the Morin Williams expertise firm and Rouillac on 28 March, the emphasis was placed on its hanging in Ornans for the "Courbet/Hodler" exhibition organised in October 2019 (see article). In this exhibition, in fact, this painting was shown next to The Source from the Musée d’Orsay. And this proximity was strongly emphasised to imply that the Musée d’Orsay validated this attribution. Let us quote some of the verbatim that we heard at this press conference:

The painting to be auctioned by Rouillac on 4 June 2023
Photo: Rouillac
See the image in its page

When the journalist Armelle Malvoisin mentioned rumours about the attribution of the work, Thierry Savatier - "specialist in erotic Courbet" as he was introduced by Maître Aymeric Rouillac - replied that: "The painting is in 2019 exhibited next to La Source. I can’t imagine... The Musée d’Orsay, in 2019, all the curators were there, nobody reacted" A little later he added that the Musée d’Orsay "would not have accepted to see The Source hung next to a painting that could have been suspect".

Maître Philippe Rouillac was even more assertive: "Do you honestly believe that Orsay would have taken the risk of exhibiting its paintings next to something that would not be good? ", even going so far as to assert that the Musée d’Orsay had asked for this painting to be exhibited there: "To hang this painting there among the Orsay paintings, at Orsay’s request, is a recognition [...] It was not hung in a side room [...] no, it was the centrepiece of that room, with the Orsay works".

Maître Aymeric Rouillac went even further, speaking of "an exhibition that was mounted by the Musée d’Orsay in Ornans, for the Courbet bicentenary". However, it was not organised by the Musée d’Orsay, but by the Musée d’Ornans.

The written communication is along the same lines. Thus on the Rouillac website we can read that: "A sign of its importance, it was exhibited as a counterpart to one of the masterpieces of the Musée d’Orsay: The Source".

An email from Rouillac announcing the sale states: "Exhibited in 2019 at the Musée Courbet in Ornans, with the exceptional support of the Musée d’Orsay, La Grande Baigneuse is the largest nude by Gustave Courbet to find its way to auction".

Finally, the expert firm Morin Williams, in an email sent on its own and Rouillac’s letterhead, says: "The ultimate Courbet nude, exhibited in 2019 during the bicentenary of the birth [of] Courbet at the Musée Courbet in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay is on sale on 4 June at Rouillac".

In our opinion, these various quotations are sufficiently explicit for us to understand that the attribution of this painting, which will be sold on 4 June, would have been validated by the Musée d’Orsay.

However, this is not correct. When questioned, the Musée d’Orsay replied that: "The fact that this painting was hung next to another painting on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in no way validates the attribution by the latter, as the Musée d’Ornans has full control over its projects.

It could not be clearer. Aymeric Rouillac, to whom we sent this reply, told us: "I am happy to confirm that this painting was exhibited for the first time at the Musée Courbet during the exhibition to mark the bicentenary of the artist’s birth in 2019, organised with the exceptional support of the Musée d’Orsay, as indicated in the catalogue published for the occasion. The museum’s curator, Frédérique Thomas-Maurin, explained that she had chosen to hang it alongside La Source in order to illustrate the two pictorial styles of the artist, who is more often appreciated for his landscapes and more rarely for his nudes, given the small size of his body of work (around fifty nudes out of more than 1,000 paintings).

We will not comment here on the attribution of the painting to Gustave Courbet, as we are not sufficiently knowledgeable about this artist to allow us to do so. But this affair seems to us to be damaging. To imply that a museum that lends a work to an exhibition assumes all the attributions of the works presented there is to misunderstand the way in which exhibitions are organised. This could make some museums, which are often only too willing to ask for the loan of works from private collections, even more reluctant.
A curator who presents a work under the name of an artist implicitly acknowledges that he or she believes the attribution to be correct (to say the least), but this does not really commit the museum hosting the exhibition, and above all it does not commit the other lending museums in any way.

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