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Experts Argue Head Might Not Match Courbet’s “Origin” Body #NSFW

by Kyle Chayka on February 12, 2013

The supposed "Origin" fragment portrait (Image via liberation.fr)

The supposed “Origin” fragment portrait (Image via liberation.fr)

Last week, Hyperallergic reported on the alleged discovery of the upper half of Gustave Courbet’s x-rated “The Origin of the World” (1866) in Paris. Experts are now casting doubt on the argument that the portrait fragment belongs to “Origin,” or even that it was actually painted by Courbet. With help from an American Courbet expert, we delved a little deeper into the story behind the face of “The Origin of the World.”

The Center for Analysis and Research in Art and Archaeology as well as Courbet expert Jean-Jacques Fernier support the collector’s claim that the paintings match, but the director of the Courbet Museum disagreed, according to Liberation. The director of the Musee d’Orsay, which owns Courbet’s original “Origin” painting, has now issued a “clear and unambiguous refutation” of the hypothesis that the new canvas is the upper half of “The Origin of the World,” reports Le Figaro.

Le Figaro also interviewed French authentication expert Hubert Duchemin on the growing controversy. “This story is bullshit … A two-year-old child would see this!” he exhorted. Duchemin points out that the brushstrokes on the portrait’s head are “smooth and in control” while Courbet’s tend to be wilder and more pronounced. He also noted that he doesn’t recognize the lab that carried out the original research, and that the fact that pigment and canvas of the portrait and “Origin” are the same doesn’t mean much — artists of the time often used similar materials.

Gustave Courbet, "The Origin of the World" (1886) (Image via wikipedia.org)

Gustave Courbet, “The Origin of the World” (1886) (Image via wikipedia.org)

Hyperallergic reached out to Stony Brook University Professor of Art History James H. Rubin to get another perspective on the possible match. Rubin, an internationally recognized expert on Courbet and a scholar of 19th-century European art, reacted to the initial unveiling of the portrait with “utter skepticism,” he said. The doubt comes at two levels: first, that the painting “has anything to do with” the “Origin” painting, and second, that the work is by Courbet at all.

The hypothesis runs that Courbet sliced up the whole “Origin” canvas before giving it to collector Khalil Bey, yet Rubin noted that Courbet slicing the canvas is “doubtful” and the composition of the figure doesn’t seem to unite the two fragments: “The position of the head and the shoulders I don’t believe actually fits ‘Origin,'” he said.

The portrait seems to depict Courbet’s model and mistress Joanna Hiffernan, yet Rubin also has concerns about the identification. “The head does not look to me like a Courbet head … It’s really pretty ugly,” he said. “If you look at the nose, it’s not Joanna’s nose.” “If it was a Courbet,” Rubin explained, “It might correspond to Courbet’s earlier work, at least a decade or more earlier [than “Origin”], but it doesn’t quite fit in that either.” Could the awkwardness be because the portrait is the work of Courbet’s students rather than the master himself? Probably not. The artist’s disciples, Rubin explained, came later, and often painted landscapes.

A significant issue is the validity of the expert who authenticated the painting, according to Rubin. Throughout our conversation, he pointed out that the gentleman is not trusted among academic scholars. At stake, Rubin said, is certainly a lot of money — the portrait fragment was valued at $56 million — but also the reputation of the expert. The high estimation, the professor said, “is crazy for the painting.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.holsworth Mark Holsworth

    The backgrounds don’t match: “Origin” has a very dark background and no indication of shading and the new painting a light brown background. And what happened to the cloth that is nowhere to be seen in the new painting but covers the upper part of the breasts in “Origin”. I’m with Duchemin, the story is bullshit.

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