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(illustration by Hyperallergic)

The identity of Gustave Courbet’s model for “L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World)” (1866) has proved elusive for many decades. It’s an especially difficult — and strange — task for art historians considering that the artist’s painting only depicts a cropped closeup of the woman’s genitals.

Soon, though, French literary scholar Claude Schopp will detail new research pointing toward Opéra ballet dancer Constance Quéniaux as the muse of Courbet’s infamous crotch-shot in a book released by the Paris-based publisher Phébus on October 4.

Previously, researchers were convinced that the naked torso belonged to Courbet’s lover, the Irish model Joanna Hiffernan, who was also romantically involved with the artist’s friend, American painter James Whistler. The attribution never really made sense, though, seeing as Hiffernan was a redhead while the pubic hair of “Origin” is a considerably darker shade of brown. (On the other hand, contemporary texts regard Quéniaux as having “beautiful black eyebrows.”)

Gustave Courbet, “The Origin of the World” (1886) (Image via Wikipedia)

According to The Art Newspaper, Schopp was going through a letter from Alexandre Dumas fils — the son of The Three Musketeers author — to George Sand, dated June 1871 at the the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF, National Library of France) which had erroneously been transcribed into English as, “One does not paint the most delicate and the most sonorous interview of Miss Queniault [sic] of the Opera.” Upon closer inspection, Schopp realized that the word “interview” was actually “interior.”

“Usually I make discoveries after working away for ages,” Schopp told the Agence France-Presse. “Here I made it straight away. It almost feels unjust,” he joked.

The literary scholar shared his discovery with the head of the BNF’s prints department, Sylvie Aubenas, who is also now convinced that Quéniaux was the painter’s model.

“This testimony from the time leads me to believe with 99% certainty that Courbet’s model was Constance Quéniaux,” she told AFP.

At the time of the painting’s creation, Quéniaux would have been 34-years-old. The ballet dancer was then a mistress of the Ottoman diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha (also known as Khalil Bey) when Courbet painted “Origin” in summer of 1866. Pasha had commissioned the French realist for his personal collection of erotica, which included a series of major works by other artists like Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

When she died in 1908, Quéniaux left a Courbet painting of camellias in her will. The central flower of the painting is open in a full, red bloom. Aubenas pointed out to AFP that camellias were strongly associated with courtesans at the time thanks to Dumas’ novel The Lady of the Camellias, which was adapted into Verdi’s opera, “La Traviata.

“What better tribute from the artist and his patron to Constance?” Aubenas asked.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

3 replies on “Researcher Discovers the True Identity of Courbet’s “Origin of the World” Model”

  1. What exactly was the French text clipping that Alexandre Dumas fils wrote to George Sand? I can’t think of what word he might have used that would have been misinterpreted/mistranslated (unless if they were using the word “interview” in france back then and it was misread as “intérieur”?) – I also can’t get the “sonorous”-ness of the “interior”?

    1. I believe that may have been a euphemism for the depth of anatomy. The 2nd definition of sonorous, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is as follows: “2. full or loud in sound.” It implies a deepness of voice. In French, from around the 18th Century onward into the 20th, two of the most common euphemisms for the vulvae were “la chatte” (pussy or cunt in the common vulgar English) and “la bouche”, which of course means mouth. If Dumas is referring to her vulva as her mouth, then it would make sense that he might crack wise about the qualities of her voice. That said, I would have to see the rest of the letter to be sure of this, because it’s also quite possible that by “the most delicate and the most sonorous interior of Miss Queniault of the Opera”, he was under the impression that she was rather a singer as well as a dancer (hence his emphasis on “of the Opera”), or, and this is merely speculation, that he was implying that she was especially vocal during intimacy. It is all a bit puzzling.

      1. Je cherche à comprendre l’origine (en français) de ce qui a pu causer un malentendu dans l’échange entre Dumas et Sand.

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