Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
L'Origine du monde
L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) is a painting by Gustave Courbet painted in 1866. It is an oil on canvas about 55 cm by 46 cm (21.7 by 18.1 inches), depicting the close-up view of the genitals and belly 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 erotism of the work. Moreover, an erect nipple and the redness of the vaginal lips suggest that the model had just had a sexual encounter.
A history strewn with famous names
Through its whole history, from Khalil-Bey to Lacan, L’Origine du monde is linked with famous characters whose discretion often contrasts with the scandalous nature of the work.
A model of dubious identity
At the time the painting was done, Courbet’s favourite model was a young lady, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as Jo. Her lover James Whistler, an American painter follower and disciple of Courbet, lent her to him.
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 Jo. She was probably the model for L’Origine du monde, which would explain Courbet’s and Whistler’s brutal separation a short while later. Whistler then returned to the United States, leaving a will in favour of Jo. In spite of Jo’s red hair contrasting with the darker pubic hair of L’Origine du monde, the hypothesis that Jo was the model for it prevails.
In her novel J’étais l’origine du monde (I was the Origin of the world), published in 2000, French writer Christine Orban takes side, imagining how the narrator, Joanna Hiffernan, was Courbet’s lover and the model for the famous painting. Bernard Teyssèdre , in Le roman de l’origine (The Novel of the Origin), a 420-page work about Courbet’s masterpiece, also seems to imply that Joanna Hiffernan was the model for it.
A few discreet owners
The order of L’Origine du monde is believed to come from Khalil-Bey , a Turkish diplomat, former ambassador of the Ottoman Empire in Athens and Saint Petersburg who had just moved in Paris. Sainte-Beuve introduced him to Courbet and he ordered a painting for his personal collection of erotic pictures, which already included Le Bain turc (The Turkish Bath) from Ingres and Le Sommeil (The Sleep), another painting by Courbet also known as Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers).
After Khalil-Bey’s finances were ruined by gambling, little is known of the following owners of the painting. 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 1889, hidden behind a wooden pane decorated with the painting of a castle or a church in a snowy landscape. According to Robert Fernier , Baron François de Havatny bought it at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1910 and took it with him to Budapest. The Hungarian collector kept it until the Second World War.
The last owner of the painting was Jacques Lacan. Together with his wife, actress Sylvia Bataille , they acquired it in 1955 and installed it in their country house in Guitrancourt . The psychoanalyst 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. The New York public had nevertheless the unique opportunity to admire L’Origine du monde in 1988 during the Courbet Reconsidered show at the Brooklyn Museum. 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, in 1995.
The impact of realism
L’Origine du monde takes place in an era of questioning of moral values. The painting had both an artistic and a social impact, still to be witnessed today.
A provocative work
During the nineteenth century, the display of the nude body underwent a revolution whose main actors were Courbet and Manet. Courbet rejected the academic painting and its smooth, idealised nudes, but he also directly recriminated the hypocritical social conventions of the Second Empire, where erotism and even pornography were acceptable in mythological or oniric paintings.
Courbet later insisted he never lied in his paintings, and his realism kept pushing the limits of the presentable further and further. With L’Origine du monde, he uncovered to some extent the hidden part of Manet’s Olympia. Maxime Du Camp, in a harsh tirade, reported his visit of the work’s purchaser and his sight of a painting “giving realism’s last word”.
An influence still present today
In February 1994, because of the cover of the novel Adorations perpétuelles (Perpetual Adorations) by Jacques Henric , reproducing L’Origine du monde, the police visited several French bookshops to have them withdraw the book from the windows. A few of them, such as the Rome bookshop in Clermont-Ferrand, maintained the book but some others such as Les Sandales d’Empédocle in Besançon complied, and a few other even 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 the morality and the taboos it imposes 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 even permanently assigned to the monitoring of this sole work, to observe the reactions of the public.
- Philippe Dagen, Le Musée d’Orsay dévoile « L’Origine du monde » in Le Monde, June 21st, 1995
- Philippe Dagen, Sexe, peinture et secret in Le Monde, October 22nd, 1996
- Maxime Du Camp, Les Convulsions de Paris, 1878
- Isabelle Enaud Lechien, James Whistler, ACR Édition
- Stéphane Guégan and Michèle Haddad, l’ABCdaire de Courbet, Flammarion
- Florence Noiville, Le retour du puritanisme in Le Monde, March 25th, 1994
- Jean Paul Fargier, L’Origine du monde, 1996
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