First, the overview image (image credit Musee d'Orsay):
Then the detail, the money shot. No, not because of the nude woman--because of the white cat (image credit Musee d'Orsay):
The Artist's Studio, Gustave Courbet, 1855, oil on canvas, 11.8' x 19.3', held by Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Now that's some painting, just in sheer size--look again at those dimensions above. It must weigh a bunch! Plus I did a rough calculation: the cat is about 10% of the height of the painting, so it's over a foot high and perhaps two feet long. I can't wait till sometime, maybe, finally, I get to Paris and can see this painting in person. I may simply be struck mute (a fate that the bride would likely endorse).
Many different interpretations, all of them fascinating, have been put forward for the presence of this magnificent white Angora specimen in the very center of one of Courbet's masterpieces. The most plausible seem to be those that refer to Les Chats, a book by Champfleury, a critic and friend of Courbet's; or those connected to the cat's ability to see in the dark, which makes it an emblem of the power of sight....No less attractive is the theory that the cat is a symbol of freedom, a significance it acquired during the French Revolution, of which it became one of the emblems. Despite these possible underlying allusions, the cat in no way seems to diminish the painting's realism; indeed, it helps to brighten the room with its usual play (probably with an insect).
My theory: Courbet liked cats.