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

Experts are now “99 percent” certain that the genitalia featured in Courbet’s painting belongs to the ballet dancer Constance Quéniaux.

(illustration by the author for Hyperallergic)
(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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