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Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)  L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World)  Oil on canvas, 1866  46 cm × 55 cm (18 in × 22 in)  Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France
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Title: The Origin of the World
Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)
L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World)
Oil on canvas, 1866
46 cm × 55 cm (18 in × 22 in)
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

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.
Identity of the model

At the time the painting was done, Courbet’s favourite model was a young woman, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as Jo. Her lover at the time was James Whistler, the American painter and disciple 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 the United States, leaving a will in favour of Hiffernan. 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 prevails.
In her novel J’étais l’origine du monde (I was the Origin of the world), published in 2000, French writer Christine Orban takes sides, imagining how the narrator, Joanna Hiffernan, was Courbet’s lover and the model for the famous painting. Bernard Teyssèdre, in Le roman de l’origine (The Novel of the Origin, 1996), whose main character is the painting itself, had already suggested that Joanna Hiffernan was the model.

The commission for L’Origine du monde is believed to have come from Khalil Bey, a Turkish 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, Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers), for which it is supposed that Hiffernan was one of the models.

After Khalil-Bey’s finances were ruined by gambling, the painting subsequently passed through a series of private collections. It was first bought during the sale of the Khalil-Bey collection in 1868, by antique dealer Antoine de la Narde. Edmond de Goncourt hit upon it in an antique shop in 1889, hidden behind a wooden pane decorated with the painting of a castle or a church in a snowy landscape. According to Robert Fernier, Hungarian collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany bought it at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1910 and took it with him to Budapest. Towards the end of the Second World War the painting was looted by Soviet troops but ransomed by Hatvany who, when he emigrated, was allowed to take only one art work with him, and he took L'Origine to Paris.

In 1955 L’Origine du monde was sold at auction for 1.5 million francs. Its new owner was the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Together with his wife, actress Sylvia Bataille, he installed it in their country house in Guitrancourt. Lacan asked André Masson, his stepbrother, to build a double bottom frame and draw another picture thereon. Masson painted a surrealist, allusive version of L’Origine du monde. The New York public had the opportunity to admire L’Origine du monde in 1988 during the Courbet Reconsidered show at the Brooklyn Museum; the painting was also included in the exhibition Gustave Courbet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. After Lacan died in 1981, the French Minister of Economy and Finances agreed to settle the family’s inheritance tax bill through the transfer of the work (dation en lieu in French law) to the Musée d'Orsay, an act which was finalized in 1995.

Impact of realism
L’Origine du monde was painted in an era when moral values were being questioned. By the very nature of its realistic, graphic eroticism, the painting still has the power to shock. For example, on February 23, 2009, a few copies of a book showing L'Origine du monde on its cover were seized by the police in Braga, Portugal, as "public pornography".
Provocative work

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 oneiric paintings.

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”.

The explicitness of the picture may have served as an inspiration, albeit with a satirical twist, for Marcel Duchamp's last major work, Étant donnés (1946–1966), a construction also featuring the image of a woman lying on her back, legs akimbo.
In February 1994, the novel Adorations perpétuelles (Perpetual Adorations) by Jacques Henric reproduced L’Origine du monde on its cover. Police visited several French bookshops to have them withdraw the book from their windows. A few proprietors, such as the Rome bookshop in Clermont-Ferrand, maintained the book, but others, such as Les Sandales d’Empédocle in Besançon, complied, and some voluntarily removed it. The author was saddened by these events: “A few years ago, bookshops were anti-establishment. When the Ministry of the Interior, in 1970, banned Pierre Guyotat’s book, Eden, Eden, Eden, bookshops had been places of resistance. Today, they anticipate censorship....”

In February 2009, a similar situation happened in Portugal when police confiscated the book "Pornocratie" by Catherine Breillat, displayed in bookshops using L’Origine du monde as its cover. A great deal of controversy was sparked by the police action. The reason given was the need to maintain public order. Also, the book title incorrectly hinted at pornographic content. Portuguese law forbids public displays of pornography.
Although moral standards and resulting taboos regarding the artistic display of nudity have d since Courbet, owing especially to photography and cinema, the painting remained provocative. Its arrival at the Musée d'Orsay caused high excitement.

The Serbian performance artist Tanja Ostojić parodied the work in her so-called "EU Panties" poster in 2005.

According to postcard sales L’Origine du monde is the second most popular painting in the Musée d’Orsay, after Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette.

The image is also referenced as inspiring Catherine Breillat's filming of the female genitalia in her 2004 film Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of Hell).

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Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)  L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World)  Oil on canvas, 1866  46 cm × 55 cm (18 in × 22 in)  Musée d'Orsay, Paris, FranceJean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)  Le Sommeil (The Sleepers)  Oil on canvas, 1866  78.74 inch wide x 53.15 inch high  Musée d'Orsay, Paris, FranceJean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)  La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo)  Oil on canvas, 1866  25.59 inch wide x 21.26 inch high  Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
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