Phryne, 1850

Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888)

  • Oil on Canvas, 185 x 152 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

On a luxurious bed, lounging against soft, colorful cushions and throws, an ‘oriental’ figure fixes her challenging gaze on the viewer. Her white robe has slipped from her body, and she wears nothing more than some jewelry and a kind of headdress. She playfully fingers her necklace with one hand, while the other holds a mirror with an elaborately decorated handle. Her name can be found on the green pillow to her left: Phryne. Phryne was a true femme fatale and the painter, Gustave Boulanger, sought to express this in her seductive pose. She had many lovers, among them the celebrated Greek sculptor Praxiteles. She was his model for a famous statue of the Greek goddess of love, the Knidian Aphrodite. This artwork – and thus Phryne – introduced an erotic component into classical sculpture.

More information about "Phryne"

Salon art

Boulanger’s work is characteristic of French Salon painting. The Paris Salon, a large-scale annual exhibition of contemporary art, was the platform for ‘official’ painting and sculpture. Historical and religious works were much appreciated, as were Orientalist scenes. The jury responsible for the selection had a preference for smooth and precise execution. Paintings by Van Gogh and other avant-garde artists deviated from this generally accepted style.

Van Gogh knew the Phyrne legend and was also acquainted with pictures of her by the Salon painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. However, he had no interest ‘in beautiful bodies like Phryne’s,’ and claimed he would rather look at ‘an ugly old woman by [Josef] Israëls or Millet […] with a pair of hands that let you know she has toiled.’

Young and provocative

While in his twenties, Gustave Boulanger had joined forces with a group of young painters, all of whom were passionately interested in the archaeologically correct reconstruction of antiquity; they called themselves the ‘néo-grecs.’ In 1850 Boulanger arrived in Rome, where he painted this picture of the classical courtesan Phryne. He sent his painting to Paris, where it received a rather cool reception at the Academy. The professors accused him of having neglected ‘the natural and simple’ in his work; this critique did not bother the painter, however, as it had been precisely his intention to create something highly provocative.

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