The Origin of the World (in French: L’Origin du monde) is an oil painting on canvas by the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), a leading exponent of Realism. Realized in 1866, it is a very controversial painting because of the explicit realism with which the artist interpreted the female nude. The language of realism that characterizes Courbet is provocatively taken to the extreme in the painting.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Gustave Courbet in The Origin of the World paints a close-up of the female sex organ. The close-up shot of the scene shows the body of a nude model, lying with spread legs on a sheet. Only her abdomen, thighs, and breasts are visible. The anatomical description is precise, and the explicitness of the image makes the painting controversial, bordering on pornographic.
The commissioner of the painting was the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey (1831-1879), known for his eccentric collecting taste in Paris in the 1860s. His collection was entirely devoted to the female body, which included Ingres’ explicit The Turkish Bath. It was shown only to a few close friends. Later, Khalil-Bey had to sell his estate as it was ruined by gambling debts. The Origin of the World thus underwent several changes of ownership. According to the history of provenance, it was documented in the early twentieth century in the collection of Emile Vial, later passed to the Bernheim-Jeune gallery and sold first to Baron Herzog and then to Baron Ferenc Hatvany. Among its last owners, before passing to the French state, was psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. It became part of the museum collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 1995, where it is still preserved though not exhibited. The work is still considered audacious and a symbol of something being concealed; it was first exhibited to the public in New York in 1988.
Several scholars have questioned the identity of the model, initially identified as Joanna Hiffernan, Courbet’s favorite Irish model. However, in 2018 literary historian Claude Schopp advanced the hypothesis that she was Constance Queniaux, a dancer at the Paris Opéra. Comparing documentation and correspondences, he suggests that Constance Queniaux was a lover of the opera’s patron, Khalil-Bey.
Courbet frequently painted the subject of female nudes, although, in The Origin of the World, he takes realism and frankness to the extreme consequences. The French painter elaborates a careful study of the female body, with great attention to the rendering of the flesh tones. As the title suggests, the most widely accepted interpretation is that it is a symbolic painting alluding to female reproduction and fecundity.
The painting escaped condemnation as pornography because of its finesse of execution. In his use of color and brushwork, Courbet draws on the Venetian school of tonalism, taking inspiration from the typical brushwork of Titian, Veronese, and Correggio.
The Origin of the World still opens to controversial issues concerning voyeurism and the problem of the sexualizing male gaze on the female body. Indeed, it should be pointed out that it was in the 1860s -when Courbet made the painting- that the first erotic photographs began to spread. Some scholars point out how the angle adopted by the painter recalls precisely the photographs taken by the French erotic photographer Auguste Belloc. However, the painting should be contextualized in the search for a renewal of artistic language that distinguished Gustave Courbet. The painter rejected the idealized and academic interpretation of the female nude to propose a representation that adhered to reality.
Gustave Courbet’s attempt to reject the tradition of the idealized female nude to create extremely lifelike works is consistent with the rest of his production, like the paintings such as A Burial at Ornans (1849-1850) or The Stone Breakers (1849).
The Origin of the World for its thought-provoking power inspired many 20th-century artists, who have given explicit quotations from it, including the male version of an erect penis by artist ORLAN IN 1989’s, entitled, L’Origin de la guerre (The Origin of War) and Anish Kapoor’s 2004 installation L’Origin du Monde.