This work shows Courbet's interest in an erotic Realism that became prevalent in his later work. Raw eroticism is delivered without aid of cupids or mythological justification of any kind, making
this work vulgar to those with the prevailing taste of the day. Such unsanctified nudes provoked much discussion about flaws in Courbet's character and art, but the artist reveled in the added
attention and increased reputation as a confrontational artist.
In the 1860's Courbet began painting erotic nudes scenes, including depictions of female genitalia, nude women in erotic poses, and this painting, depicting lesbianism. Courbet gained much notoriety for his erotic nudes, which he displayed alongside hunting scenes, ensuring a sales and a reputation.
The Sleepers was commissioned by the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey, who also commissioned The Origin of the World, to include his private collection of erotic paintings. This particular painting was also part of a police report in 1872 when a painting dealer held in it an exhibition. It was not allowed to be displayed publicly until 1988.