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The Origins of the World/Gustave Courbet 1866

A popular figure in the National Rust is our picture editor Malcolm.

One of the joys of us contributors is – after we have completed our post as a draft – seeing what accompanying photos Malcolm has selected for it.

He has a totally free hand but if he feels them to be inadequate he always lets us know.

I have never known a contributor to object.

He will have a difficult but possibly exciting task with Courbet’s Origins of the World – a depiction of the torso of a woman with her legs splayed open with a lustrous growth of pubic hair.

As there is no face there has been much scholarly debate as to the identity of the woman.

She is widely held to be Joanne Hiffernan, an Irish woman who was the lover of James Whistler as well as Courbet.

Not surprisingly this led to a fall out between Whistler and Courbet in possibly the first case of “sexting”.

However, others are not so sure of the identity. It’s amusing to think of artistic scholars poring over the body and trying to decide whether a model who was a magenta redhead could have such dark body hair.

Other candidates are a dancer Constance Quineaux,a lover/muse of Courbet, and Marie Anne Detourbay, the mistress of Ottoman diplomat Halil Sertif Pasha who commissioned Courbet to do the work to add to his considerable collection of erotica.

Pasha also commissioned The Sleepers from Courbet which featured Hiffernan.

The Origins of the World then had an equally colourful time passing  into the collection of Hungarian collector Ferenc Hatvany, who bought it back from the Soviet invading troops and who took it with him as his only saved object to Paris, where it was later acquired by a French psychoanalyst called Lacan – whose brother superimposed a face – before finally finishing in the Musee d”Orsay who took it in lieu of inheritance tax.

Courbet argued that the painting represented his trademark realism and to glorify the classical nude of mythology and antiquity at the expense of the modern one was hypocritical.

He was no stranger to erotic art, his picture Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) mentioned above represented the coupling of two women and, by the look of the rumpled sheets, also little doubt what they had been doing.

Like many a French painter of the late 19th century, Courbet came from a wealthy family (Paul Cezanne, Edouard Manet and Camille Pissarro had very rich fathers) and his  father was a landowner in the Jura.

Courbet became something of radical and another painting The Meeting (1854) – of him greeting his patron in the country – shows no sign of deference whatsoever.

Even to the present day The Origins Of The World generates controversy.

Facebook censored it when a Danish artist put it up on his page and the Portuguese police confiscated a book with the picture of it on its cover.

There is a interesting discussion to be had on where the borders of art end and pornography begins.

Lucian Freud might have painted the limbs more graphically but it’s very much in his style.

We considered Courbet and realism in our art course yesterday.

Not only has our  teacher a deep knowledge of art she puts her courses in a political, philosophical, social and biographical context.

1848 was the year of revolution in France and elsewhere and Courbet was inspired by this, the poetry of Baudelaire and the philosophical tracts of Saint Simon and Hegel.

It’s also worth mentioning that the French were – and probably still are – less prim than us Brits.

Courbet’s great friend Emile Zola wrote a superb novel about a French prostitute Nana who rose to the dizzy heights of Parisen society where the prostitute and lesbianism were more widely accepted.



About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts