Lovers, Sleepers and the Bliss of Female Desire

Emily Gray (Class of 2022) unpacks voyeurism and homoeroticism in two related images by the French artists Gustave Courbet and Achille Devéria

This essay was written for Professor McBreen’s class Modernism and Mass Culture in France 1848-1914 (Fall 2019). The research assignment was to locate, and then critically compare a modernist work of art with a related image, in another media, from the same time period.

Achille Devéria’s lithograph Minna and Brenda (1837) and Gustave Courbet’s painting Le Sommeil (1866) are nearly identical in terms of their content. In both, a pair of female lovers melt into one another, the only apparent difference is the presence of a male figure drawing back a curtain in Devéria’s lithograph (1). This seemingly minor addition radically alters the narrative, from a moment of private passion to a staged-for-the-viewer scene of lesbian erotica (2). Courbet’s painting, on the other hand, suggests the possibilities of genuine lesbian desire in the absence of an active male spectator, an effect further enhanced by the inanimate, but sensual details.

I will use the work of both William Rubin and Laura Mulvey to address sexuality and subjectivity in Devéria and Courbet. In his work on Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles of Avignon (1907) Rubin examines the roles played by male figures in the long conception of the painting, since men appear in earlier sketches for what eventually becomes an all-female cast (3). Although the works in this paper pre-date Picasso, Rubin’s ideas are useful to think through the differences of the male figure— implied (Courbet) and literally present (Devéria).

Mulvey’s explorations of the closely related critical concepts of voyeurism (the erotic pleasures of active spying) and scopophilia (the aesthetic gratification from looking) can be applied to consider how a viewer is potentially implicated in this comparison.

Le Sommeil by Gustave Courbet, 1866. Petit Palais, Paris, France. Oil on
canvas. 4.5 tall x 6.5 wide.
Minna and Brenda by Achille Devéria, 1837. Lithograph.

Both works share a number of key details: the pose and position of the women, and our slightly elevated view of them; the implied action; even the hair color of the lovers. Devéria depicts two women wrapped in each other’s arms with their nightgowns falling off their shoulders to expose their breasts, a detail likely designed to tempt and pique interest. The tone of these semi-nude women is feigned modesty. They lay on a plush bed, where they have been discovered by a man drawing a curtain to reveal their entangled figures by lamplight. The fair-haired woman gazes at her partner with an expression of hypnotized bliss.

For his inspiration, Devéria took creative liberties with Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate, published in 1822 (3). In the novel, Minna and Brenda are fairly conventional sisters, but in Devéria’s print, they hold each other as lovers. The man is Norna, the sisters’ brother (4). This adaptation is not so surprising since Devéria was known for his erotic content. His visual work belongs to a larger Libertine movement, which among other things, celebrated debauchery and hedonism. The lithograph’s reproducible nature underscores its purpose and value: an image made to be consumed by a broad audience, presumably mostly heterosexual adult males. As such, its depiction of lesbian sexuality is titillating, and like so many others in the 19th century, it was created for normative male desire in mind.

Le Sommeil was primarily painted for one person, Khalil-Bey (an Ottoman diplomat stationed in France). It was not shown publicly until the mid-twentieth century (6). Although created with a male heterosexual gaze in mind, it is a far less typical depiction of lesbianism, allowing us an opportunity to imagine more agency on the part of the women depicted. Courbet, the Realist, depicts two lovers with lifelike flesh, in an exhaustive passionate embrace, presumably just after climax. There are several visual cues that point to this post-libidinal fever. Most obviously, the signs are the broken string of pearls and the discarded hair pin, but also the wrinkled sheets, and the twist of the rich blue patterned curtain. Even the disembodied leaves from the flowers in the yellow vase speak to the act. Note the yonic symbols as well: the cup, the vase, the decanter, the pearls. These details enrich a sense of exclusive female desire, drawing us away from the ever-present man in so many 19th-century homoerotic images.

Courbet seems to have constructed the painting to give his viewers a glimpse into a tender moment of humanity and all its chaos and euphoria. The unabashed brushstrokes are characteristic of Courbet, and mirror the lovers’ vulnerable yet brazen character. The women seem weighted; their clammy flesh is richly detailed. From the pull of the leg that highlights the ribs, to the shadow of cellulite on the thigh, every dimple and tendon is painted to be savored. The texture of Courbet’s strokes emphasize the craft and tactile pleasures of paint. He offers a space to voyeuristically engage with the flurry of sexuality, but limits us to be content with a intangible glimpse of a private romance. As voyeur-viewers, we are simultaneously invited in via the position of the women’s bodies and the sensual paint, and rebuffed by their intensity and genuine self-absorption.

This duality is represented in the body of the brunette. Her right arm leads the viewer’s eye, but her chest (and heart) turns towards her partner. Her right leg is crossed over her lover’s hip—away from the viewer—but another possible point of entry is the implied vaginal passage between her splayed legs. However, the women do not feel obligated to the viewer. They are merely loving deeply which makes the viewing experience that much more enticing. The quality of their embrace is genuine, due partially to the intertwined women and partially to the materiality of Courbet’s technique. He paints the women realistically, unashamed, and existing for themselves.

The profound ideological difference between the two images rests on this question of the male spectator. Rubin analyzed the implications of the male spectator in many of Picasso’s works, developing concepts about narrative that can be productively applied here. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon underwent several changes. Initial sketches and studies show women of varying dispositions (historically, but perhaps erroneously assumed to be prostitutes), a medical student holding a skull, and a sailor. In many versions of the composition, two men frame the women. In the final work, however, the women stand alone, directing their powerful gaze towards the surveyor (7). The removal of the peripheral medical student and sailor shifts the painting from “narrative to iconic,” as Rubin aptly puts it, radically altering the messaging to the viewer. For the audience, it is a shift from third- to first-person point of view, a shift that can also be applied to a comparison between Devéria and Courbet. The inclusion of a male voyeur creates multiple effects in the print. It provides a comfortable layer of distance for the viewer as the indirect audience for the scene. A male viewer can also identify with the voyeur inside the image. By extension, a viewer is able to “control” parts of the lithograph by finding commonality with a surrogate and “his” mirror image (the brother).

The narrative point of view can be analyzed using the work of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, who adapted Freudian psychoanalytic concepts. Voyeurism is the sexual gratification from gazing at people in the nude, or performing sexual acts. Voyeurism is only a nudge away from sadism, according to Mulvey, as this type of “pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control, and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness. This sadistic side fits well with narrative. Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person.” (7)

Scopophilia and more specifically, fetishistic scopophilia, on the other hand, is a passive and more innocently curious activity. It’s about receiving aesthetic pleasure from gazing at someone. Fetishistic scopophilia exists outside of the narrative structure. Courbet’s Le Sommeil is “concerned with situation, not suspense,” aligning it more with fetishistic scopophilia (8). The active brother character in Devéria’s Minna and Brenda creates a more directed narrative structure. Devéria places Norna in the position of power, with his arm throwing back the curtain into the space of the lesbian lovers, symbolic of his invasive phallic force. Norna is the sadistic voyeur. This mirror provides a comfortable yet titillating lens through which other viewers of the lithograph can enter the image. It zaps any agency the depicted women have and makes their desire something to be consumed, rather than experienced.

By contrast, Courbet creates a feeling of solidarity for the couple in the intensity of their passionate moment. The viewer is potentially made more aware of their spectatorship, existing only outside the scene. Courbet doesn’t give us any blatant stage directions for how to view these bodies. The sensation is of a suspended moment, free of time or space, and charged with emotion.

In the history of art, female sexuality has been largely dominated by phallocentric fantasies. Le Sommeil is a relatively rare depiction of female lovers created by a male artist who seems to genuinely appreciate the purity of the shared moment. The painting does not feel like a performance, especially when juxtaposed to Devéria’s Minna and Brenda. Courbet provides us with a mid-19th-century secular icon to the sanctity of female sexuality. In doing so, it anticipates the multiple images of desire liberated from male heterosexual voyeurism that generations of future queer artists will imagine in the years to come.


(1) While these images share visual similarities, I do not mean to make claims for direct inspiration for Courbet from Devéria. Minna and Brenda serves as an archetype for the kind of highly-consumable lesbian erotica popular in France during the 1800s.

(2) The term “lesbian” is a term with complex historical meaning that must be acknowledged. Sexuality only became an identity term/a noun widely used in the 1960s and 70s forward. Throughout history and in different cultures, sexuality could be viewed mostly as behavior, and desire did not necessarily define the identity of a person. I will use the term lesbian in this essay because it is inescapable considering the content but I want to recognize the complexity of this term.

(3) William Rubin, “From Narrative to ‘Iconic’ in Picasso: The Buried Allegory in Bread and Fruitdish on a Table and the Role of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” The Art Bulletin 65, no. 4 (1983): 615-49. doi:10.2307/3050371.

(4) Dominique Morel, Achille Devéria: Temoin du Romantisme Parisien 1800-1857, Musée Renan-Scheffer, 1985, 66-67.

(5) Sir Walter Scott,The Pirate. The Pirate, Edinburgh University Library, 19 Dec. 2011,
www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/novels/pirate.html.

(6) I C, “The Sleepers,” Petit Palais (City of Paris Fine Art Museum, October 10, 2019),
http://www.petitpalais.paris.fr/en/oeuvre/sleepers)

(7) William Rubin, “From Narrative to “Iconic” in Picasso: The Buried Allegory in Bread and Fruitdish on a Table and the Role of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” The Art Bulletin 65, no. 4 (1983): 615-49. doi:10.2307/3050371, 627.

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