The French painter Paul Chabas completed “September Morn” in early 1912. The painting shows a young woman demurely bathing nude by the edge of Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie, France. When Chabas showed it that year at the Paris Salon, it won a gold medal of honor. Critics praised it. But when copies of the painting made their way to America, it provoked a bitter controversy there about nudity, art, and public morality.
Thanks to this controversy, September Morn became one of the most famous and popular paintings of the twentieth century. It sold millions of copies and was reproduced on a wide variety of merchandise including umbrellas, suspenders, postcards, candy boxes, cane heads, and watch fobs. They even made a play!
Thanks to the controversy surrounding it, the September Morn image became an iconic part of American popular culture during the early twentieth century. Some put the sales of the painting at over seven million copies. But since the vast majority of these copies were illegally pirated, Chabas never saw much profit from the painting’s popularity, though it did make him famous. He once remarked, “Nobody has been thoughtful enough to send me even a box of cigars.”
September Morn went on to feature in many different ways in popular culture:
In 1913 Stanley Murphy penned a popular song: “September Morn (I’d Like to Meet Her).”
n 1913 Florenz Ziegfeld (of Ziegfeld’s Follies) presented onstage a recreation of September Morn starring Ann Pennington, a dancer later known for her dimpled knees. The New York Sun noted that “unfortunately this September Morn wore silk tights which bagged at the knees a bit and wrinkled in the wrong place.”
In 1914 a popular musical stage production of September Morn was produced and toured throughout the United States. It also toured through Lanark County and the night it played at the Carleton Place Town Hall it was sold out because 20 young chorus girls were dancing their hearts out.
One newspaper gave this description of the play: “The play, of course, gets its name from the painting of the same name which stirred up comment from coast to coast. The story of the piece has to do with the aspirations of one Rudolph Plastic, owner of an art studio, who claims to have been the painter. Of course, Rudolph does not even know how to paint a picket fence.
The model of “September Morn” is laid claim to by an actress who has instructed her press agent to circulate the rumor that she is the original. The ludicrous moments when the two impersonators are dodging each other and when a chesty old army officer who has fallen in love with the actress, discovers that she is a good friend of his wife’s, creates enough laughter and plot for six musical plays. The scenery is prettily designed and painted and the costuming introduces chorus girls in their latest Parisian costumes.”