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.
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 the American painter James Whistler, a friend of Courbet.
Courbet did another painting in 1866, La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo), whose model was 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 of L'Origine du monde, the hypothesis that Hiffernan was the model for it continues. In her RED: A Natural History of the 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.
The commission for L'Origine du monde is believed to have come from Khalil Bey, an Ottoman diplomat, former ambassador of the Ottoman Empire in Athens and Saint Petersburg who had just moved to Paris. 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.
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