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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #53: Shock Art: Courbet’s The Origin of the World

Just a quick note that this episode contains adult content-- really, really adult content-- so please take care when listening.

There are just a slough of questions that I get asked over and over again as an art historian, because they are the things that people are always interested in-- what’s so great about the Mona Lisa, and why is she smiling like that? How come so many ancient sculptures are missing limbs? And why are there so many old-looking babies in medieval and early Renaissance paintings? (Good question, by the way). But there’s one question I get from art lovers who have traveled to Paris or are a little more familiar with 19th century painting than most. Because at the Musee d’Orsay, there is a painting on display that’s just flat out shocking to see on the wall, where anyone can walk by it. And those who have seen it frequently come back to me and say, “Why? How?” So, what is this work of art? It’s a full-on close up view of a woman’s genitalia-- nothing more, nothing less.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. In this episode, the last on our two-season deep dive into shock art, we’re covering one of the most shocking paintings of all: Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World.  This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

Jean Désireé Gustave Courbet, known just as Gustave Courbet to us, was born in 1819 into a prosperous household in Ornans, about 450 kilometers southeast of Paris and in the section of France known as Bourgogne and not terribly far from the Swiss border. Like many artists of this time period, he bristled against the confines of provincial France and wanted to get to where all the action was-- Paris. At twenty years old, he moved to Paris, and jumped headfirst into the art world. He worked first as a studio assistant to two other artists, Steuben and Hesse, about whom I could really find nothing in my cursory research, other than Courbet’s connection to the two of them. But Courbet really hated this traditional, academic setting, and as he would do throughout much of his life, he took matters into his own hands. He developed his own style of painting and trained himself based on the close study of works that he saw in the Louvre Museum, loving especially the Spanish, Flemish, and French masters hanging therein. But even here, he felt that something was missing. Copying felt a little distant. What Courbet wanted was to paint from life-- only representing what he saw with his own eyes. This lead to a series of self portraits in which Courbet portrays himself in a multitude of roles as a way to work out everything from facial expressions to body positioning and so on.  None of these works would find him a place at the lauded Paris Salon until 1849 when his painting After Dinner at Ornans received a gold medal and a purchase from the state. The gold medal signaled that he would no longer require jury approval for exhibition at the Salon from that point onward. If the arbiters at the Paris Salon thought that this style of painting-- a bit staid, a little boring-- was what was in store from Courbet for the rest of his life, oh boy, did they have something else coming.  

And it came pretty quickly, too. The following year, Courbet exhibited the first of many, many paintings that would both thrill and anger Salon officials and audiences. The Stone Breakers, also from 1849, does not, to our contemporary eyes, appear the slightest bit provocative, but it truly shook the Parisian bourgeoisie. The provincial working man, toiling away under harsh working conditions? And presented for all to see right next to mythological or historical paintings? The horror! But all joking aside, it was a big deal-- both in terms of what Courbet would paint--only what he saw with his own eyes, unglamourous and modern-- but also what Courbet himself would be-- a rule-breaker, a rebel. But as the Gold Medal recipient for After Dinner at Ornans in 1849, he also was given carte blanche to show whatever he wanted and appear, without being juried in, at the salon. That is, until 1857 when he appeared in the salon for the last time.

At the Salon of 1857 Courbet showed six paintings, including a work titled Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer).  Now, just based on the title alone, that sounds pretty lovely. But like Manet, Picasso, and many other artists who would come after, Courbet here flaunts his disinterest in tradition and instead did things his way, by depicting not two elegant women enjoying the summertime landscape, but instead two sex workers lying on the shore of the Seine. It’s really funny, but this work, to me and my 21st century viewpoint, looks almost tamer than the thousands of timeless or traditional nudes that came before, for centuries. Because here, we see two fully dressed women-- with shoes on, even-- lounging together. But at the Salon, it was exactly this fact-- that Courbet was presenting modern women, in modern clothes-- with the skirt of one woman just slightly disheveled enough to tell that she’s wearing modern undergarments therein, too. It would be the same with Manet’s Olympia a few years later-- how dare artists refuse to comply with academic traditions and subject matter? And to make matters worse, Courbet specifically chose to show this work alongside five other paintings of his, all of them rather tame hunting paintings. And he did this on purpose, he said, to promise himself “notoriety and sales.” He was no dummy. He leveraged his position to do exactly what he hoped-- and the more he worked, the more he garnered both notoriety and sales, just as he had hoped.

Coming up next, right after this break-- Courbet gets edgier and edgier in his works and then makes the edgiest of them all. Stay with us.

Welcome back to ArtCurious.

After his exhibition of Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), Gustave Courbet had truly angered the Salon enough that they basically rescinded their previous rule about Gold Medal Salon winners being able to show whatever at the Salon without being juried in. And so, 1857 was the last time that Courbet ended up showing at the Paris Salon, because he was refused entry from that point on. But by then, it really didn’t matter, because Courbet had already become so famous -- or infamous, really!-- that he didn’t need the Salon’s hallowed ground to garner attention anymore. He was able to do whatever he wanted, and people would follow. And so, he painted a series of increasingly erotic paintings that were both shocking and popular. But none of them would be as shocking as his 1866 piece de resistance.

Courbet’s interest in the erotic and his ability to make a sale came together for his most provocative work, The Origin of the World-- and as we mentioned at the top of this episode, there’s no mincing of words here. Painted in 1866, The Origin of the World depicts a close up cropped image of a woman’s spread legs and her abdomen, leading up to one partially uncovered breast.  It’s spectacularly shocking-- not at all what we’re used to seeing on the walls of a museum, let alone out in the open, anywhere, so even first-time visitors to the Musee d’Orsay, where the work is housed today, are often taken by surprise when they stumble upon the work for the very first time. But one thing needs to be made clear here-- when it was produced in 1866, it wasn’t meant to be hanging on the walls of one of the world’s top museums. It was meant for the eyes of only one man.

It is believed that Halil Şerif Pasha – also known under the name Khalil Bey-- an Ottoman diplomat born in Cairo and living in Paris since the early 1860s--specifically commissioned this painting from Courbet after being introduced to the painter and becoming familiar with his work. (And sidebar: he also most likely commissioned one of Courbet’s other most notorious works, titled The Sleepers, of two women amorously snoozing together-- if the words “amorous” and “snooze” could be used in conjunction, really.) Khalil Bey was a supreme art collector, and one whose collection was well-known at the time, causing the French writer and art critic Theophile Gautier to note that it was "the first ever to be formed by a child of Islam.” What was so fascinating, and perhaps surprising, about Khalil Bey’s collection was that it specifically centered around erotic art. He collected sensual pieces by Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, Rousseau, Gerome, and others, and he was looking for a crown jewel that he could show off to diplomats and upper-class men who he entertained in his home. And oh boy, with The Origin of the World, visitors would certainly have received an eyeful.

To be fair, you can lump some praise onto Courbet’s rendition here, because, following Courbet’s tenet of representing what he could truly see with his own eyes, it is a fairly realistic and anatomically correct painting, with extra props heralded onto it by those who favor the quote-unquote “natural look,” when it comes to public hair. But you’ve gotta think that most, if any, positive response that has been directed at this work is most likely coming from us, as 21st century viewers. You’ve gotta wonder how it was received in private circles and within Khalil Bey’s chambers, where he kept the work hidden behind a green curtain, which he’d peekaboo aside for the eyes of the select few. Not much is known otherwise about how the work was received-- but what is known is that Bey was an impulsive and addicted gambler, and in 1868 he lost his fortune and was forced to sell the painting and most of his collection to pay off his debt. And for more than a century, The Origin of the World passed around private collections-- and was even owned for a time by Jacques Lacan, the famed French psychologist-- until it was given to the Musee d’Orsay by Lacan’s heirs in 1995.  And as the Musee d’Orsay’s website notes about this painting, it “epitomized the paradox of a famous painting that is seldom actually seen.” It had only been shown publicly twice in its history up to that point-- once at a Courbet retrospective in Brooklyn in 1988, and back in Ornans, Courbet’s hometown, in 1991.

Over the last two decades, The Origin of the World has remained in the limelight not only for its subject matter, but for the lack of information regarding the subject itself-- who would have modeled for such an outrageous work of art? That sensational crop of the painting means that there’s no way to really identify the model, but that hasn’t prevented anyone in the art world from trying. Naturally, a good place to start any investigation was within the artist’s own background. In the years prior to the conception of The Origin of the World, Courbet frequently used a woman named Joanna Hiffernan as his model and muse, and she appeared in at least four of his paintings up to that point. Hiffernan was an Irish woman with startlingly beautiful red hair, and she was not only Courbet’s muse and possible paramour, but she was also similarly attached to James Abbott Mcneill Whistler, who portrayed her in one of his most famous works, titled Symphony in White No. 1-- The White Girl, from 1862. During the same period that Courbet painted The Origin of the World for Khalil Bey, he also completed Bey’s second commission-- The Sleepers, for which Hiffernan most definitely modeled. It was assumed, for the longest time, that Hiffernan was the model for The Origin of the World because she had already modeled nude for Courbet, and because of Courbet and Whistler’s purported falling out soon after the painting was completed. This is all very much art-historical speculation, but the story is that Hiffernan and Whistler had, like Courbet and Hiffernan, been romantically involved for a time before separating. The idea, then, is that Hiffernan could have gone on to model for The Origin, and that such an intimate image could have spurred on a disagreement between the two artists. That being said, though, there has always been a real question about whether this was the reason for Courbet and Whistler being at odds, and even if Hiffernan was indeed the model for The Origin. Because, let’s face it-- Jo Hiffernan was an Irish beauty famed for her vibrant, flame-red locks, and the hair that Courbet so blatantly details in The Origin of the World is… not red. Historians have been obsessed with the (pointedly vulgar and tactless fact) that the carpet, as they say, would not match the drapes, if Hiffernan was indeed the model. And feminist-minded critics have been eager to note, early on, that such an identification of Hiffernan as model is not only just gross, but also totally sexist, based on the stereotype of redheads as having fiery personalities and, thus, being fiery in the sack as well. (And by the way, for more details on stereotypes and misconceptions frequently lobbed at gingers, I recommend the British documentary, Being Ginger, from 2013). So, is it Hiffernan? Probably not. But if it isn’t her, who is it? Believe it or not, that is something that has possibly just been revealed-- but not before something else was revealed first.

In 2010, a painting was uncovered in a Parisian antique store and sold to an anonymous collector for under two thousand dollars. At some point soon after, the owner had a revelation-- the image, of a woman’s head, thrown back in a swoon, dark eyes open, flushed skin, and a crown of curly dark hair-- seemed like it was painted at an odd angle, like it should be part of a… larger canvas. And indeed, it looked like the painting had indeed be cut or trimmed, and there was no signature present-- what artist, in his or her right mind, wouldn’t sign a work of art? And that’s when Courbet expert Jean-Jacques Fernier was called in for close examination. After two years of analysis and testing, as long as taking the step of aligning the newfound portion with the d’Orsay’s Origin of the World, Fernier concluded  in 2013 that the pigments and brushstrokes, as well as grooves that would have been made by the work’s original wooden frame-- they looked to be a match.  And it was a big deal-- the news of the missing half of The Origin of the World was trumpeted in art and culture publications all over-- even making the cover of such high-profile magazines as France’s famed Paris Match.

But this being the art world, there was definitely grumbling and dissent over this supposed “authentication” of Fernier’s. Critics lobbed that there was too much of a difference in style between the two images, and that even paint and canvas couldn’t be the end-all, be-all of matching since such materials were widely available and were more standardized by the mid-19th century, so any artist could have painted such a scene. Even the chief curator at the Courbet Museum in Ornans was noted in said Paris Match article as “not convinced.”   

So the world isn’t totally sure if the reputed upper-half of The Origin is really verifiable, but just last year-- late 2018-- the world may finally know the actual identity of the model-- and Jo Hiffernan it ain’t. In September 2018, a French historian named Claude Schopp, having toiled away for years in the French National Library and Archives working on a biography of Alexandre Dumas the younger--the renowned author and playwright and son of the more famous Alexandre Dumas Pere, the elder, who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, among other masterworks. In transcribing and pouring over letters that Dumas  wrote to another famous author, George Sand, Schopp had been bewildered by a passage that just didn’t make sense. As The New York Times reported on October 1, 2018, Schopp was reading a passage “in the old typewritten copies, where Dumas inveighs against the “insolent” and “cowardly” Courbet, who had committed an artistic heresy, in the view of Dumas,” and here Dumas is quoted: “One doesn’t paint with one’s most delicate and sonorous brush the interview of Ms. Queniault of the Opera, for the Turk who took refuge inside it from time to time — all of it life-size, and life-size also two women passing for men.”

As the Times notes, a couple of the clues here are fairly easy to pick out-- first, the Turk was well-known to be Khalil Bey, and the image of the so-called “two women passing for men” is most probably a reference to the two lovers in The Sleepers. But the transcription was still confusing, so, like any good historian, Schopp went straight to the source —Dumas’s original manuscript from the French National Library. Therein, he and archivist and historian Sylvie Aubenas found a little error that made a big difference: Dumas hadn’t written “the interview of Ms. Queniault of the Opera,” he wrote “the interior of Ms. Queniault. He even underlined it, as The New York Times noted, to “emphasize that he was playing with words.” Dumas, then, really complaining to George Sand of how indecorous Courbet had been to create this life-size scene of a lady’s “interior,” especially when the man who commissioned it “took refuge inside it from time to time.” Wow.

So who is this Miss Queniault? It turns out that she was fairly well-known, and it wasn’t too difficult for Schopp and Aubenas to dig up information and images of her. Born in 1832 outside Paris, Constance Quéniaux-- whose name Dumas misspelled in his original letter to Sand-- established herself as a dancer in the 1840s and 1850s, working as part of the ballet company of the Paris Opera. Now, if you know anything about the way dancers, especially ballerinas, were perceived in the mid-to-late 19th century--and we’ve talked about this a little bit in our third season, back in episode 38, when we looked a bit more closely at Edgar Degas and his famous ballet paintings-- dancers, well, they were seen as easy pickings for rich men who were looking for a little bit of company on the side. But from all accounts, Queniaux was the real deal. As the Times article notes, she was called out by a critic as being gracious and distinguished, and even Theophile Gautier, the same man who commented with awe on Khalil Bey’s erotic art collection, even he thought Queniaux was a marvelous dancer. And speaking of Khalil Bey, that’s where the story gets even more interesting. Constance Queniaux quit dancing around 1859 after a debilitating injury, and so she had to find another good source of income and well-being-- and she found it when she met Khalil Bey and began accompanying him, as a sort of good-luck charm, on his gambling trips. So you can see where the connection between her and Bey comes into it-- and it’s not a stretch, then, to see that Bey, possibly in love, or just in lust, with his gambling arm candy, would have come to Courbet and asked for a little memento to be painted. It makes good sense.

What is surprising, though-- and probably my favorite part of this whole business with Courbet’s shocking Origin of the World-- is that Constance Queniaux ended up being a very respectable Parisian grande dame, growing in fame from her meager beginnings as

a dancer, and possibly a courtesan, to becoming a very wealthy and respected member of society, one whose name was frequently found in newspapers for her generosity and interest in arts and culture. She lived comfortably and well, dying in 1908 at the respectable age of 75, significantly outliving both her lover-- Bey died at 47-- and Courbet, who died at 58 years old. And for Schopp and Aubenas, this was one of the best parts, which Schopp has uncovered at length in his recent book, titled The Origin of the World: Life of the Model. About this, Schopp noted, “My only contribution was to make this object a subject. Now she’s something else besides flesh. I wanted to restore a person. I wanted to restore dignity to a woman. And this woman, she surprised me.”

Just because we now are pretty darn sure who the model was for Courbet’s racy Origin of the World-- and that the other half of the canvas may have been found-- doesn’t mean that the shock factor of the work of art is going to let up anytime soon. Indeed just last year again-- 2018 seems to have been a big year for a little painting from 1866-- a French court ruled that it was wrong for Facebook to censor images of the painting online, though Facebook was not required to pay the hoped-for $25,000 to the plaintiff, an educator named Frédéric Durand who posted an image of the Courbet painting and was summarily kicked off the social media platform without notice. And even now, if you search for images of the work on Google Images, you’ll get many more images of censored versions of the work of art over the originals, though Google is reportedly not actively censoring the image. It’s further testament to the fact that this work of art is still powerful and still incendiary-- and other artists have taken inspiration from it for decades, especially feminist artists and critics who have had a problem with the voyeuristic aspect of Courbet’s original and have taken to creating their own versions-- French provocatrice Orlan produced her take in 1989, cheekily and pointedly titled The Origin of War and does a gender reversal, placing a man in the delicate position. More recently and more crazily, a Luxembourgish performance artist named Deborah de Robertis staged a so-called intervention in 2014 where she entered the Musee d’Orsay’s galleries sat down, spread-legged, directly in front of the Origin of the World and showed visitors what she called her “origin of the origin.” And yes, there are photos and videos of this online. But I’ll let you Google those on your own time because, well, you probably already know why. This work will keep bringing up the same uncomfortable questions that we asked ourselves last time on the ArtCurious Podcast. We began our last episode about Balthus’s Therese Dreaming by asking about the fine line between art and pornography, and the Facebook lawsuit proves that this line is still blurry, still difficult. Is Courbet’s work of art porn? The famous feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, a personal hero of mine-- thought so-- and she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Courbet, so she seems like a good source here.  Do I personally think it’s porn? Well, no, not really. But I also don’t feel totally comfortable looking at this work. I’ve seen it twice at the Musee d’Orsay, and staring at a work of art like this makes me feel a little gross, even if I’m just leaning in to examine the brushstrokes--and no, that’s not a euphemism, like “I subscribe just to read the articles.” For me, it’s just too much. It’s still a little too shocking- even today. And perhaps that was exactly the point. Even in terms of erotic art, this one goes above and beyond, a bridge too far-- and going way overboard was exactly what Courbet was all about.

Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at, our logo is by Dave Rainey at, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at Additional editing help by Hannah Roberts.

The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is a creative space, founded with the intent of fostering artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to artist studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition space Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle.  please visit

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. For more details about our show, including the image mentioned in this episode today, please visit our website: We’re also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod.

Now, this is our last episode of season 5 and our last of our yearlong foray into the shocking works of art history. But you know that we aren’t going anywhere. I’m taking a couple of months off to work on the next season and a couple of other big projects that are brewing, but we will be back soon with more stories of the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history. Until then, stay subscribed, tell your friends about our show, and stay tuned for more details. We’ll be back at you soon. Thanks, as always, for listening and loving.

Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #52: Shock Art: Balthus’s Therese Dreaming (S05E06)