The grape leaf crown atop this young woman's head implies that she is one of the many followers of Bacchus, revelers who lived lives of drunkenness and sexual abandon in the classical past. Her costume however, reveals that she was a contemporary of the artist. Scholars believe that the young woman depicted is actually one of Gustave Courbet's four sisters, Zélie. Her closed eyes and softly parted lips reveal that she has fallen into a state of deep slumber. Courbet contributed a sense of psychological complexity to the drawing by depicting her in dark shadows.
This richly toned drawing illustrates Courbet's disdain for the clean lines prescribed by the French Academy. He preferred to use thick deposits of conté crayon, vigorously smudged, to create texture and convey mood. This monumental life-sized drawing, like many of his paintings, was meant to create a jolting visual impact. Although Courbet included his formal signature in the lower right corner of the drawing, he also prominently placed his characteristic lower-case g on the young woman's neck, below her tendrils.
Art + Ideas Podcast: Lee Hendrix on Noir