Description

The maid awakens (Le lever de la bonne)

  • Artist: Sívori, Eduardo
    Nationality Argentina
    (Argentina, Buenos Aires,1847 – Argentina, Buenos Aires,1918)
  • Date: 1887
  • Acquisition: Escuela Nacional de Artes Decorativas de la Nación
  • Genre: lounge, nude, social
  • Support: On canvas
  • Dimensions: 198 x 131 cm.
  • Location: Room 24 - Arte argentino del Siglo XIX
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The maid awakens (Le lever de la bonne) Enlarge
Reference 1894

Summary The maid awakens (Le lever de la bonne)

Le lever de la bonne (Waking of the Servant) is a naturalist nude. Although the title and some of its compositional elements connote it as such, the painting pertains to a genre that was a battlefield of modernist audacities throughout the 19th Century. The scene involves no narrative, it limits itself to presenting a young girl’s body, in which her station as a member of the working class can be read. The furniture is simple, clothes are piled up on a wicker bench at the foot of the unmade bed and above all, the work’s title indicates that it deals with a servant. A source of light that enters from the left illuminates that body, setting it apart from the neutral background of the rear wall with dramatic intensity. The girl’s skin is dark, especially in the areas where a working girl’s body is exposed to the sun: the hands, face and legs. She appears to be self-absorbed in the task of turning a stocking inside out in order to put it on, in such a way that accentuates the contrast between her breasts and her hands, punished by the elements, even further. The thick, muscular nature of her legs, one crossed upon the other, is emphasized by the painting’s naturalist handling, which focuses on a meticulous representation of her rough, mistreated feet. Her pubic area is invisible behind her crossed leg and positioned precisely at the center of the composition. None of these details were overlooked by critics who commented on the painting in 1887, in Paris as well as in Buenos Aires.     
Eduardo Sívori painted it in Paris, and after having achieved its acceptance in the annual salon there, he sent it to Buenos Aires that same year, knowing ahead of time that exhibiting it would generate a scandal. This was the first avant-garde gesture in the history of Argentinean art. Sívori offered to donate his canvas to the Sociedad Estímulo de Bellas Artes, an organization that he had played an essential role in founding. The painting’s arrival from Paris—probably brought by Eduardo Schiaffino—was preceded by a series of articles in the press in which the Sociedad Estímulo announced the problematic nature of the piece and that its exhibition would have restrictions. They publicized that some commentaries had been made in Paris (translated in their entirety) that questioned the artist’s good taste in undertaking to handle such a theme.
In 1887 naturalist painting occupied a prominent place in the Paris Salon, as one of the channels through which the official aesthetics of the Academy were being renovated. Without venturing too far afield from formal conventions imposed by tradition (chiaroscuro, perspective, surface handling), naturalist painters followed along the lines of iconographic renovation that had been initiated by Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, introducing themes derived from Émile Zola’s literature, or motifs that posed direct denunciations of contemporary social conflicts, usually in a melodramatic narrative tone. Nudes were not a genre that was often handled in naturalist painting. Sívori’s painting was soon interpreted by French critics (Roger- Milès, Emery, E. Benjamin and Paul Gilbert, among others) as a work derived from Zola - a bit “excessive” in representing a body that was seen as ugly, dirty and unpleasant.
In Buenos Aires, where there had been very few, much-discussed exhibitions of artistic nudes prior to its arrival, the painting was the object not only of an intense controversy in the press (it was qualified as “indecent” and “pornographic”) but also of support from an important line of intellectuals and artists who spoke in its favor. On August 22, 1887 at a meeting of its Board of Directors, the Sociedad Estímulo de Bellas Artes decided to exhibit the painting at its location, dispatching special invitations to its members and to Buenos Aires journalists, initiating an album to gather the signatures of all those “who care to manifest their congratulations to the author for the progress achieved”. Over 250 signatures from artists, writers, etc. were registered in this album, in the pages of which Sívori also kept the news clippings of reviews received and photographs of this and other paintings of his that had been shown at the Salon de Paris prior to his definitive return in 1891.       
There are some differences between the photograph of Le lever de la bonne conserved in this album and the final painting. We do not know if the modifications were made before or after being exhibited in the Salon de Paris. On the little night stand a washbasin and pitcher can be seen (elements of hygiene) instead of the candelabra with an extinguished candle seen in the final version. On the other hand, a shelf with small toiletry bottles and jars can be glimpsed on the rear wall. All these elements can be observed in plain sight when the painting is seen under a bright light, as if the artist had decided to leave those regrets to be scarcely divined in the background shadows. The most significant difference, however, is a change in the servant’s physiognomy. Her face and hairstyle appear less dark in the photograph. The servant seems like a ‘faubourienne’ or working-class Parisian in the version in the photograph; perhaps closer to the appearance of a prostitute (the elements of hygiene also contribute toward that impression), a favorite theme among the avant-garde and social critique of that era. Even once modified, the servant was interpreted as a prostitute and the painting was considered pornographic by several of its earliest commentators. This transformation is quite significant. Perhaps the artist decided to move away from the social “theme” in fashion at the time in order to present it at the salon. Perhaps he decided to transform her unequivocally into a poor servant in order to exhibit the painting in Buenos Aires.Laura Malosetti Costa

Bibliography

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