At the Salon of 1847, Woman stung by a snake (Musée d’Orsay) by the young Clésinger caused an outrage.
The critics attacked the work both on moral and technical grounds. The indecency of the subject – a naked woman contorting on a bed of roses, a snaked wrapped around her wrist – is in fact enhanced by the exaggeratedly realistic treatment of the flesh, allegedly inspired by a life-size cast of the generous contours of Apollinie Sabatier, a famous demi-mondaine friend of the Romantic artists.
To give the lie to this accusation, by late 1847 Clésinger had sculpted this Recumbent Bacchante, a slightly larger than life-size version of the Woman bitten by a snake. The work, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1848, drew the following comment from Théophile Gautier, the novelist and art critic close to Mme Sabatier: “it is a pure orgiastic frenzy, the wild-haired Maenad is winding herself around the feet of Bacchus, the father of freedom and joy […] A powerful spasm of happiness causes the young woman’s ample bosom to swell, giving prominence to gleaming breasts...” He rounded off his article by calling it “one of the most beautiful pieces of modern sculpture”.
The term “modern” may seem surprising to us today; it no doubt describes the sculptor’s realistic approach and the exaggeration of the twisting movement characteristic of Romanticism.
The Bacchante was awarded a First Class medal and earned the sculptor the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, although the critics were not unanimous in their praise.
When it was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in 1851, the English jury denounced his imagination as “perverse and placed at the service of the basest form of sensuality”.