September Morn: The History of a Controversy

Matinee de Septembre

In 1912, Paul Chabas won the Medaille d'honneur (medal of honor) for painting in the annual Salon exhibition of the Société des Artistes Français. Chabas was a student of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, working within the well established (and, by 1912, increasingly irrelevant) tradition of academic painting, which included nudes portraits.

A review of Chabas's work, including a reproduction of Matinée de Septembre appeared in the United States as early as June of 1912 in Town and Country, before the medal of honor had even been formally awarded. Lilian Washburn Newlin's review of the painting contains no indication that there is anything indecent or potentially controversial about Chabas's painting. Indeed, she notes that paintings is very similar to Chabas's earlier painting, Au Crépuscule. She writes:

Matinée de Septembre" is a large canvas and is well placed on the center of the wall, about two feet from the floor, so it is on a level with one's vision. So lifelike is the nude figure of the young blonde, with every curve clearly defiend against the gray background of the lake and mountain, that one fairly catches one breath upon entering the room. Every curve of the young figure entering the water is graceful and true to life; one can almost see the pearly skin shiver with the first shock of the cold. The flesh of a rare transparent quality, emphasized by the light of the early sun shining through the silver September mist. The face is of exquisite beauty. From a little distance the life-sized figure appears to be all in gray, but on closer scrutiny I found that the flesh was warm and full in tone with hints of green, pink and blue in the reflections and the exquisite shadows. The pose is not unlike Monsieur's Chabas's famous painting "Au Crépuscule," which was exhibited in 1909. This masterpiece was bought by the government and now hangs in the Luxembourg. This is the best known and most frequently reproduced of all his paintings. (21)

Newlin did not see anything controversial about Chabas's painting. When reproductions of the painting began circulating in the United States, however, the case was very different.