L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) is an oil-on-canvas painted by 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.
The Origin of the World, now openly displayed, has taken its proper place in the history of modern painting. But it still raises the troubling question of voyeurism.
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 ofL'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 had authenticated a painting of a young woman's head and shoulders as the upper section ofL'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“. 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 “Centre d’Analyses et de Recherche en Art et Archéologie“ (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. According to CARAA, it performed pigment analyses which were identified as classical pigments of the 2nd half of the 19th century. No other conclusion were reported by the CARAA. The claim reported by Paris Match was characterized as dubious by Le Monde art criticPhilippe Dagen, indicating differences in style, and that canvas-similarities could be caused by buying from the same shop.
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 oneiricpaintings.
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 eroticism, the painting still has the power to shock and triggers censorship (see below).