Origin of the World
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dbronson's picture


Constanace Quéniaux: the *true* model for Courbet's L’Origine du Monde

Experts are “99%” sure that the painted vulva belongs to the ballet dancer Constance Quéniaux. The discovery was published by Claude Schopp on October 4th, 2018 shocking the art world. Previously, it was believed that Courbet’s lover, the Irish Model, Joanna Hiffernan (who was also involved with Courbet’s friend, the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.) Puzzlingly, Hiffernan was a redhead, and the vulva-in-question definitely looks like it belonged to someone with dark brown/black hair. Quéniaux, the proposed model, was described in texts as having “beautiful black eyebrows.” Schopp found a mistranslated text at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF, National Library of France) stating that “…one does not paint the most delicate [interior] of Miss Quéniault [sp] of the Opera.

The first person on record to own this work was Khalil Bey (1831-1879), was a Turkish-Egyptian diplomat. He developed an impressive collection dedicated to a celebration of the female body (cool, but agency + definitely the male gaze + constructions of propriety + femininity in the post-Victorian era? Speculatively, Bey sold the painting to pay off his gambling debts. The provenance record gets hazy after Bey’s ruination from his debts. The L’Origine joined the Musée d’Orsay’s collection in 1995, the last owner being the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Courbet regularly painted the female nude often in a “libertine” (e.g. crude, moral-less, “free-spirited”) manner. According to the Musée d’Orsay, the painting has qualities of “daring” and “frankness.” In their description of the painting it's graphic, but not pornographic because if its “amber” color scheme. I’m not so sure. It’s certainly audacious. The male gaze fulfilled. There’s also definitely a power discrepancy and differential between the artist & viewer/spectator, versus the painting’s model/subject. Within the Modern purview, it raises the question of voyeurism, agency of the subject represented, and the continued question of why we valorize the female nude.

The largely theoretical and historical female plight of representation is adequately summed up by V’s speech in James McTeigue’s 2005 film, V for Vendetta. If you listen to V’s speech, it’s possible to interpret it as a vendetta, that’s similar to contemporary feminist thought in that both are vindictive vengeances for those that have been oppressed. It’s a bit of a vendetta against perceived injustice by people cast aside historically as on the fringes and powerless (e.g. liminal). Very relevant to understanding female representation during the Modernist period and how in the present moment, we can look back with clarity and collectively feel frustration about the lack of a model’s agency and the male gaze inherent in Courbet’s painting and subject matter.

Case in point: Rebecca di Robertis’s 2014 reenactment and reclamation of the vagina in: Mirror of Origin Performed at the Musée d’Orsay in front of Courbet’s L’Origine, di Robertis bared her parts and recreated Courbet’s work. Two guards subsequently filed complaints of sexual exhibitionism. She was also arrested in 2016 after recreating Manet’s Olympia.

But I think what her performance pieces do is, address the agency/determination of self-representation that Courbet’s painting in the post-Industrial, 19th century, lack. In the era of #metoo, p*ssy claps back.




  1. Abrams, Amah-Rose. “Nude Performance Artist Speaks Out after Musée d’Orsay Arrest.” January 19, 2016. Date accessed: 10/30/2018
  2. Sutton, Benjamin, “Artist Enacts ‘Origin of the World’ at Musée d’Orsay—And, Yes, That Means What You Think”, Artnet, Date accessed: 10/30/2018.
  3. Stapley-Brown, Victoria “Courbet's model for the Origin of the World discovered.” The Art Newspaper
  4. The Origin of the World. Musée d’Orsay. Date accessed: 10/30/2018
jtucker's picture


By coming here to see Gustave Courbet's Origin of the World, you've just entered into an elite class of people.

You, my friend, have just basked in the glory of one of the most famous vaginas in history. This may not be an accomplishment about which you write home to mom, but has most definitely just bagged you some total bragging rights amongst your friends. And don’t worry, I won’t tell your girlfriend.

We live in the digital age now. We have an endless supply of vaginas (and any other weird fetish you can think of) right at our fingertips. But back when this painting was created in the 1800s, the world was not so lucky. Those poor saps had to rely on the talent of the artist to immortalize the glory of the yoni. It is believe that Ottoman diplomat Khaili Bey commissioned this painting as the newsiest addition to his erotic art collection. Sadly, Bey soon lost his fortune gambling and was forced to sell this painting to pay off his debt. This piece than passed through the hands of many private collectors until it was given to the Musée d’Orsay in 1995. Talk about sloppy seconds.

Art historians believe that the model for this painting was Joanna Hiffernan. If you want to put a face to the vag, check her out in this painting by James Whistler, looking decidedly more virginal. At the time of this painting, Joanna was dating John Whistler. Courbet and Whistler were friends and had a great relationship...up until the point Courbet got up close and personal with his lady friend to create this rather pornographic portrait. Apparently making highly detailed paintings of a friend’s girlfriend’s vagina goes against the code of bros, and Whistler soon went on to loathe Courbet.

One of the most important questions this painting conjures up is: does the carpet match the drapes? Yes, the age-old sexist riddle is still up for debate and this painting is helping the world see that no, it does not need to! Joanna was a total ginger, but her pubes are telling a different story. Not that it's anyone else's business. 

This painting always seems to evoke strong reactions, and not just amongst prepubescent boys. There have been multiple scandals surrounding the exhibition of this explicit piece of work. There have been two authors who have tried to use this painting for the cover of their book, and both experienced issues with bookstores and government authorities. More recently, the social media giant Facebook has banned people (including Sartle!) from posting this painting on the website. One man in particular was so offended when his account got shut down after posting that he brought a lawsuit against Facebook, which is still raging on.

Clearly the power of the pussy drives people to do crazy things. This became quite apparent in 2014 when performance artist Deborah di Robertis decided to do a feminist re-enactment of the painting by lying on the floor of the museum, legs spread-eagle, with her vagina promptly on display in front of the canvas. In a gold sequined dress, no less.

This painting highlights many quirks of humanity - from our salacious proclivities to our prudent disdain. But no matter how you cut it, Origin of the World will likely never cease to get strong reactions. This is one kitty that is not to be messed with.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about L'Origine du monde

L'Origine du monde ("The Origin of the World") is a picture painted in oil on canvas by the French artist Gustave Courbet in 1866. It is a close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed with legs spread. The framing of the nude body, with head, arms and lower legs outside of view, emphasizes the eroticism of the work.


Identity of the model

Art historians have speculated for years that Courbet's model for L'Origine du monde was his favourite model, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as Jo. Her lover at the time was the American painter James Whistler, a friend of Courbet.

Hiffernan was the subject of a series of four portraits by Courbet entitled La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo) painted in 1865–66. The possibility that she was the model for L'Origine du monde or that she was having an affair with Courbet might explain Courbet's and Whistler's brutal separation a short while later. 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 continues. Redhead Jacky Colliss Harvey puts forward the idea that the woman's body-hair suggests a more obvious candidate might be the brunette painted with Hiffernan in Courbet's Le Sommeil; and that the identification with Hiffernan has been greatly influenced by the eroticised and sexualised image of the female redhead.

In February 2013, Paris Match reported that Courbet expert Jean-Jacques Fernier had authenticated a painting of a young woman's head and shoulders as the upper section of L'Origine du monde which according to some 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. The Musée d'Orsay has indicated that L'Origine du monde was not part of a larger work.The Daily Telegraph reported that "experts at the [French] art research centre CARAA (Centre d'Analyses et de Recherche en Art et Archéologie) were able to align the two paintings via grooves made by the original wooden frame and lines in the canvas itself, whose grain matched." According to CARAA, it performed pigment analyses which were identified as classical pigments of the 2nd half of the 19th century. No other conclusions were reported by the CARAA. The claim reported by Paris Match was characterized as dubious by Le Monde art critic Philippe Dagen, indicating differences in style, and that canvas-similarities could be caused by buying from the same shop.

Documentary evidence however links the painting with Constance Quéniaux, a former dancer at the Paris Opera and a mistress of the Ottoman diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha (Khalil Bey) who commissioned the painting. According to the historian Claude Schopp and the head of the French National Library's prints department, Sylvie Aubenas, the evidence is found in correspondence between Alexandre Dumas fils and George Sand. Another potential model was Marie-Anne Detourbay, who also was a mistress of Halil Şerif Pasha.


Halil Şerif Pasha (Khalil Bey), an Ottoman diplomat, is believed to have commissioned the work shortly after he moved to Paris. Charles Augustin 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 (The Turkish Bath) from Ingres and another painting by Courbet, Le Sommeil (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, who published two volumes of the Courbet catalogue raisonné and founded the Musée Courbet, 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 later ransomed by Hatvany. Hatvany left Hungary, which was on the brink of a Communist takeover, in 1947. He 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, about 4,285 US dollars at the time. Its new owner was the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He and his wife, actress Sylvia Bataille, 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.

The New York public had the opportunity to view 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 paiement" in French law) to the Musée d'Orsay; the transfer was finalized in 1995.

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 and even pornography were 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, reported his visit to the work's purchaser, and his sight of a painting "giving realism's last word".

By the very nature of its realistic, graphic nudity, the painting still has the power to shock and triggers censorship.

Although moral standards and resulting taboos regarding the artistic display of nudity have changed since Courbet, owing especially to photography and cinema, the painting remained provocative. Its arrival at the Musée d'Orsay caused high excitement. According to postcard sales, L'Origine du monde is the second most popular painting in the Musée d'Orsay, after Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette.

Some critics maintain that the body depicted is not (as has been argued) a lively erotic portrayal of a female but of a corpse: "L’Origine does not represent a full female body but rather a slice of one, cut off by the frame [...]. The pallidness of the skin and the mortuary gauze surrounding the body suggest death."

Check out the full Wikipedia article about L'Origine du monde.