On the eve of the Salon of 1853, Courbet declared his intention "to do nothing but nudes for the next Exhibition." The Bathers, one of two works in this genre that he exhibited, defied the current preference for timeless, idealized nudity. Eugène Delacroix, a member of the Salon jury, deplored the "vulgarity of the forms" in Courbet's painting, which occasioned a critical uproar. Defending the realism of Courbet's nudes, the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary countered, "He painted the real, living French woman."
During the 1860s Courbet painted a series of female nudes, in both landscape and interior settings. If the poses of his figures evoked Renaissance or more recent artistic prototypes, other details—such as his depiction of the models' discarded clothing, the marks left on their flesh by corsets, and their body hair—were unmistakably modern and transgressed accepted convention. Galvanized by the success of the nude Venuses and Eves by academic artists that proliferated at the Salon, Courbet vowed to paint a nude that its conservative jury would accept. The result, Woman with a Parrot, was shown at the Salon of 1866 (his previous submission to the Salon of 1864 had been rejected on the grounds of indecency).
In contrast, Sleep and The Origin of the World, both private commissions, deviate from Courbet's Salon nudes in their explicit erotic content. Like that of the publicly exhibited works, however, their imagery derived from multiple sources, including contemporary prints and pornographic photographs, examples of which are shown in the exhibition galleries.