Gustave Courbet was no stranger to controversy. He was a man of strong political views which occasionally erupted into activism, in particular during the revolutionary year of 1848 and the Commune in 1871. He was anti-intellectual, anti-clerical and anti-establishment and these socio-political opinions had an impact on the subject matter he chose to depict. All this gained him a reputation as a provocative firebrand but he nevertheless exhibited regularly at the Salon, protected by powerful patrons. At the 1849 Salon he was awarded a gold medal.
Critics found plenty to criticize when they were confronted by Woman with a Parrot at the 1866 Salon, complaining about the model’s ungainly pose and the artist’s lack of taste. The principal problem however was the blatant sexuality of the painting in which a young woman can be seen sprawled across a couch, her legs slightly splayed, the tresses of her luxuriant hair spread out against a disarranged white sheet, part of which has, perhaps fortuitously, entwined itself around her upper leg. Most of the sheet has become a tangled heap leading to questions in the mind of the viewer as to how this might have come about. The young woman is diverted by the eponymous parrot whose outstretched wings, revealing its striking plumage, echo the massed locks of her hair.
Why the parrot? As a result of some curious labyrinthine medieval logic (the call of some parrots was thought to resemble the word "Ave" used by the archangel Gabriel to greet Mary at the Annunciation) the parrot became one of the many attributes of the Virgin. By association the bird later came to be used as a secular companion to women. Their sumptuous and exotic appearance and provenance (and the consequent expense of acquiring one) enhanced their allusive use by some artists as a pointer to those qualities in the sitter. By the 18th century, a bird that had flown its cage came to be associated with a fallen woman. The parrot therefore came to embody both the exotic and the erotic.