Out of all of Gustave Courbet's paintings I found Reclining Nude (1868, Oil on canvas, The Louis & Stern Collection) the most interesting. It depicts a nude woman lying on the beach beneath a billowing canopy. A dark, but tranquil sea is in the background. The sky is dark as if the final rays of the sun were disappearing over the horizon. There are a few clouds in the sky, they are dark but not threatening. The picture is very dark in general and there is no obvious light source. The edges of the painting are so dark it is impossible to tell what the nude reclines against.
A very dim light falls on the woman, who lies on her right side. The upper half of her torso is twisted to her left and her hips and legs face the viewer. Her right leg is bent slightly so her calf is beneath her straightened left leg. The woman is not as thin as classical nudes, her hips are somewhat broad and her thighs are slightly heavy. Her arms are crossed languidly over her head. Because her arms are crossed over her head, her face is almost completely in the shadows; this shadowing covers the detail of her face in such a way that she could be almost anyone. She gazes wistfully at the ground to her left.
The woman is rendered very softly and is in a very sensuous posture. A scarlet cloth lies in front of her; it has a very rumpled look, which has sexual implications. The vacant, wistful look and the languid crossing of her arms suggests that she is thinking of a lover who has just left her. The careful shadowing of her facial features leads one to believe she has something to hide from public knowledge. It is not covered enough, however, for one to believe she has any shame for appearing in so public a place in such a position; this, too, would have been found scandalous in the 1860's. Now, however, compared to such displays of sexuality and nudity, the picture is perceived as a modest, proper display of sexuality.