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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.




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 vulva and abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed with legs spread.

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