The Origin of the World Gustave Courbet Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Origin of the World, or L'Origine du Monde to use its original French name, was a highly controversial painting produced by Realism artist Gustave Courbet in 1866.

This carefully cropped painting focuses entirely on the torso and genitals of a young model. Her face is cut out, as are most of her legs. It is, therefore, a purely erotic work focusing on themes related to women, which had traditional been overlooked by most European artists. This artwork can be found at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris as part of a large collection of his work. Much research has been made into this controversial, but particularly important, painting and the most likely scenario is that the model herself was Joanna Hiffernan, the once lover of fellow artist James Whistler. Jo, as most knew her, is believed to have been Courbet's favourite model of all those that he used for his work.

Courbet was an artist who embraced and enjoyed creating controversy. He saw the tastes of French academics, particularly in Paris, to be stale and in serious need of updating. He knew his work with Realism would be challenged, but was felt the poor feedback was just part of the cycle of introducing new ideas into the art world. It is fair to say, though, that this painting really did push the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable at that time, much as it would today in some more conservative countries. Courbet had also produced a series of four portraits of Jo earlier and there is evidence that Whistler and Courbet fell out at around this time, leading some to speculate about a possible affair.

Alternative theories have suggested that Joanna Hiffernan was a true redhead and therefore it is unlikely to have been her - instead others have been put forward. Research around this famous painting has drawn in a number of artworks from his career which are related to this piece, be it study drawings of some of the models that he used or other full oil paintings of some of the models mentioned here. In terms of ownership, Halil Şerif Pasha is believed to have commissioned the painting. He was an Ottoman diplomat living in Paris at the time. He appreciated erotic paintings and had already ordered several others from notable artists of the time, including Ingres' Le Bain turc (The Turkish Bath).