Huile en Toile — An Overrated Painting Depicts The Normalcy of Modern Sexism

Heather M. Edwards
5 min readMar 12, 2019
The Artist’s Studio, 1855 by Gustave Courbet. Musée d’Orsay

She stands in the middle of the foreground like a floor lamp, the only light illuminating a darkened room that looks like mold smells.

She is completely naked. Count them. There are 26 fully dressed people — including two other women, a small child who may or may not be the model’s, a dog, the artist himself and one naked man in the apparent throes of a tetanus seizure or a crucifixion without a cross. She is described as “his” unnamed “nude model”. But he is seated painting a provincialist landscape with his back to her. Courbet’s title is just as incongruous as the painting itself: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist. Very well then.

This painting is the pre-selfie, a much more labor-intensive exercise in vanity, it also allows the artist to correct for perceived imperfections, to put himself in the center of society and culture as a philosophical and artistic focal point. In that respect it isn’t terribly different from the perfectly angled butt shot on Instagram that spirals around a tiny waist like a staircase, heavily photoshopped to filter the lighting, contrast, exposure, and grain, to perfect what a woman admires most in herself. It’s potentially egotistical, and not uncommon. But Courbet’s nude is a prop, just like the dagger or the guitar on the ground. And it is woman-as-inanimate-object that feels like still-life sexism.

Though it can be violent, sexism is not defined only by violence. It can be the mere centering of a male narrative while marginalizing a parallel female experience to highlight his own. And to an extent we all marginalize others, sometimes The Other, while making ourselves the hero of our own stories.

Now before the MRAs get their briefs in a bunch let me be clear. Nudity in old paintings does not cause violence today. But marginalizing women by decorating with their nudity is just one more cog in a collective wheel — a society that undervalues women.

“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient. In fact, a man convinced of his virtue even in the midst of…