The subject of this portrait has traditionally been identified as a young woman of Spanish descent who cared for Gustave Courbet in the fall of 1854, when the artist caught cholera after visiting the
art patron Alfred Bruyas in Montpellier. Nursed back to health in Lyon with what he described as a radical remedy, Courbet may have painted the young woman's likeness when he returned to Paris.
(Beneath this portrait is a painting of the head of another woman, oriented differently, suggesting that he reused a canvas lying around his studio.)
Leaning on her arm and running a hand through her hair, the woman exudes a languid sensuality not uncommon in Courbet's female portraits. Exhibited at the combined Salon and Exposition universelle of 1855, the picture attracted more attention - most of it negative - than any of his other ten paintings on display.
Critics disapproved of Courbet's realism, arguing that it made the woman appear ugly, and they wondered what grievances he held against Spain. She was even likened to Russian leather in a print caricature that circulated in Paris.