L'Origine du monde  

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Origin of the World

L’Origine du monde[1] (The Origin of the World) is an oil on canvas painted by Gustave Courbet in 1866. Measuring about 46 cm by 55 cm (18.1 by 21.7 inches), it depicts the close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed and spreading her legs. The framing of the scene, between the thighs and the chest, emphasizes the eroticism of the work. Moreover, an erect nipple and the redness of the labia suggest that the model just had a sexual encounter. The painting was not publicly and permanently exhibited until the 1995.


Impact of realism

L’Origine du monde was painted in an era when moral values were being questioned. By the very nature of its realistic, graphic eroticism, the painting still has the power to shock. For example, on February 23, 2009, a few copies of a book showing L'Origine du monde on its cover were seized by the police in Braga, Portugal, as "public pornography".

Provocative work

During the 19th century, the display of the nude body underwent a revolution whose main activists were Courbet and Manet. Courbet rejected academic painting and its smooth, idealised nudes, but he also directly recriminated the hypocritical social conventions of the Second Empire, where eroticism was acceptable in mythological or oneiric paintings.

Courbet later insisted he never lied in his paintings, and his realism pushed the limits of what was considered presentable. With L'Origine du monde he has made even more explicit the eroticism of Manet's Olympia. Maxime Du Camp, in a harsh tirade in volume 3 of Les Convulsions de Paris, reported his visit of the work’s purchaser, and his sight of a painting “giving realism’s last word”.


In February 1994 the novel Adorations perpétuelles (Perpetual Adorations) by Jacques Henric, reproduced L’Origine du monde on its cover. Police visited several French bookshops to have them withdraw the book from their windows. A few proprietors, such as the Rome bookshop in Clermont-Ferrand, maintained the book, but others such as Les Sandales d’Empédocle in Besançon complied, and some voluntarily removed it. The author was saddened by these events: “A few years ago, bookshops were counter-powers. When the Ministry of Interior, in 1970, banned Pierre Guyotat’s book, Eden, Eden, Eden, bookshops had been resistance places. Today, they anticipate censorship…”.

Although moral standards and resulting taboos regarding the artistic display of nudity have evolved since Courbet, owing especially to photography and cinema, the painting remained provocative. Its arrival at the Musée d'Orsay caused high excitement. A guard was permanently assigned to the monitoring of this sole work, to observe the reactions of the public.

John Updike mentioned the painting in his poem “Two Cunts in Paris,” Paris Review 144, Fall 1997.


Identity of the model

At the time Courbet was working on the painting his favourite model was a young woman, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as Jo. Her lover at the time was James Whistler, the American painter and friend of Courbet.

Courbet did another painting in 1866, La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo), whose model was Joanna Hiffernan. During his whole career, Courbet did four portraits of Hiffernan. She was probably the model for L'Origine du monde, which might explain Courbet's and Whistler's brutal separation a short while later. Whistler then returned to London. In spite of Hiffernan's red hair contrasting with the darker pubic hair of L'Origine du monde, the hypothesis that Hiffernan was the model for it prevails.

In February 2013, Paris Match reported that Courbet expert Jean-Jacques Fernier has authenticated a painting of young woman's head and shoulders as the long-lost upper section of L'Origine du monde which was severed from the original work. Fernier has stated that because of the conclusions reached after two years of analysis, the head will be added to "the next edition of [the Courbet] catalogue raisonné".

As reported in the The Daily Telegraph, "experts at the [French] art research centre CARAA were able to align the two paintings via grooves made by the original wooden frame and lines in the canvas itself, whose grain matched. The length of the brushstrokes and the size of the brush hairs also tallied perfectly. A sketch of the full work was also found on a caricaturist magazine cover of the time".


The commission for L’Origine du monde is believed to have come from Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat, former ambassador of the Ottoman Empire in Athens and Saint Petersburg who had just moved to Paris. Sainte-Beuve introduced him to Courbet and he ordered a painting to add to his personal collection of erotic pictures, which already included Le Bain turc from Ingres and another painting by Courbet, Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers), for which it is supposed that Hiffernan was one of the models.

After Khalil-Bey’s finances were ruined by gambling, the painting subsequently passed through a series of private collections. It was first bought during the sale of the Khalil-Bey collection in 1868, by antique dealer Antoine de la Narde. Edmond de Goncourt hit upon it in an antique shop in 1889, hidden behind a wooden pane decorated with the painting of a castle or a church in a snowy landscape. According to Robert Fernier, Hungarian collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany bought it at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1910 and took it with him to Budapest. Towards the end of the Second World War the painting was looted by Soviet troops but ransomed by Hatvany who, when he emigrated, was allowed to take only one art work with him, and he took L'Origine to Paris.

In 1955 L’Origine du monde was sold at auction for 1.5 million francs. Its new owner was the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Together with his wife, actress Sylvia Bataille, he installed it in their country house in Guitrancourt. Lacan asked André Masson, his stepbrother, to build a double bottom frame and draw another picture thereon. Masson painted a surrealist, allusive version of L’Origine du monde, entitled Terre érotique. The New York public had the opportunity to admire L’Origine du monde in 1988 during the Courbet Reconsidered show at the Brooklyn Museum; the painting was also included in the exhibition Gustave Courbet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. After Lacan died in 1981, the French Minister of Economy and Finances agreed to settle the family’s inheritance tax bill through the transfer of the work (dation en lieu in French law) to the Musée d'Orsay, an act which was finalized in 1995.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "L'Origine du monde" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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