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Issue 8

Who Commissioned the 19th Century’s Most Notorious Painting?

The origins of Gustave Courbet’s ‘Origin of the World’

BY Tim Smith-Laing in Features , Frieze Masters | 02 OCT 19

Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), 1866, oil on canvas, 46 × 55 cm. Courtesy: © RMN-Grand Palais, Paris, and Art Resource, New York

The writer and photographer Maxime du Camp probably never saw the painting, but he knew enough to hate it. It was kept in the owner’s dressing room, he wrote, veiled by a dark-green curtain. The few guests for whom the curtain was drawn were stunned at what lay behind it. The subject was, he noted in the late 1870s, ‘rather difficult to describe’, before stating that it comprised: ‘A woman, life-size, seen front on, in a state of extraordinary movement and convulsion, remarkably well painted, reproduced, as the Italians say, con amore, and giving the last word in realism. But, by some inconceivable lapse, the artisan who had copied his model from nature had neglected to represent the feet, the legs, the thighs, the belly, the hips, the stomach, the hands, the arms, the shoulders, the neck and the head.’

Take away so much of the body, and you are left with one thing alone. And, in case there could be any doubt, Du Camp sneaks in the unnameable thing itself in passing, behind the green curtain of a foreign tongue. Con, an innocent preposition in Italian; in French the subject of the picture itself: a cunt.

The artist behind this disgraceful picture was Gustave Courbet, a man for whom Du Camp had the utmost contempt. A person, he wrote, can ‘have neither intelligence, nor training, nor wit, nor decorum, nor urbanity, and remain perfectly honourable, as long as he keeps high and intact the exercise of his métier’. But the man who has all those things and yet, ‘for a few écus, will degrade his profession to abjection, is capable of anything’. Such was Courbet: the kind of person who, given free rein, might help destroy society to satisfy nothing more than ‘his need for popularity’. In case this should sound like exaggeration, Du Camp’s description of the painting appears not in a work of art criticism, but in the middle of his condemnatory history of the 1871 Paris Commune, Les Convulsions de Paris (The Convulsions of Paris, 1878–80). From the painting’s ‘extraordinary movement and convulsion’ to the city’s, in which Courbet had been a prominent public presence, it was a short step indeed.

In 2019, the bicentenary of Courbet’s birth, the painting Du Camp described with such scorn hangs on permanent display in Room 20 of Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. The green curtain has gone, but it is still unique – and shocking. For all the female nudes in art history, there are none as blunt or frank as this. Hang around the gallery, and you can watch viewer after viewer pass from the other paintings – dignified portraits and romantic selfies, a grey trout gaping on the bank of a stream – and register the shock of it. There is a mixture of recoil and laughter, deliberate blindness and calculated neutral study. Whatever the individual reactions may be, since it has been brought into the museum and placed on display, what was once carefully hidden as an object of pleasure is now art – and safe to look at for as long as you want. The label calls it L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World, 1866).

Despite its domestication as respectable art, Du Camp might have had a point about L’Origine. The story that runs from its enshrinement in the Musée d’Orsay on Monday 26 June 1995, back to the dressing room, and back again to the day in 1866 when Courbet picked up his brush to begin work, is a long series of convulsions in the order of the world. The painting ravels a thread that links Courbet to the Ottoman Empire, to Karl Marx and early Communism, to Austria-Hungary’s decline and dissolution, to the Holocaust, the Iron Curtain as well as to the intellectual revolutions of Surrealism, Psychoanalysis and 1960s theory. Spanning the year that Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital (Capital, 1867) to the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc after 1989, the painting’s biography is the tale of 130 years of seismic events that shaped and reshaped Europe, and with it the globe.

Étienne Carjat, Gustave Courbet, c.1867, photograph. Courtesy: Getty Images

L’Origine’s story begins not with Courbet, but with the tastes of his patron, a man described by Du Camp as ‘an extremely rich Muslim who paid for his own fantasies in gold, and who, for some time, had a certain notoriety in Paris thanks to his prodigality’. Though the sneer is unfair, the essentials of Du Camp’s portrait are true. The man in question was the flamboyant Ottoman transplant Halil Şherif Pasha: art collector, gambler, diplomat and man about town.

Born to a rich family in Cairo in 1831, Halil was educated in Paris, then became a distinguished diplomat for the Ottoman Empire, with spells as a negotiator at the end of the Crimean War in 1856, and as ambassador to Athens and Saint Petersburg. In 1865, when Russia proved too cold, he retired to Paris, rich and fancy free. He was nothing if not a striking figure. At the gambling tables of Monaco, Nice and Paris, he seemed unaffected by even the largest losses, while on his arm hung the sultry Jeanne de Tourbey, former mistress of the Prince Napoléon Bonaparte. Halil was more than a playboy, though. Highly educated, polyglot and cultivated, one contemporary described him as representing ‘modern civilization in its most complete form’, a perfect synthesis of East and West.

Halil’s urbanity was manifested above all in what the poet and art critic Théophile Gautier called the ‘sure taste, a perfect sense of quality, a sincere passion for the beautiful’ that lay behind his activity as an art collector.1 Within three years of arriving in Paris, he had acquired 100 paintings by contemporaries and Old Masters, ranging from Eugène Delacroix’s delirious Tam O’Shanter, poursuivi par les sorcières (Tam O’Shanter Pursued by Witches, 1849) to peaceful landscapes and a surprising number of Oriental fantasias by Frenchmen who had likely never been further East than Nice. Among these last was one of the paintings that earned Halil the reputation ascribed to him by Du Camp: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Bain Turc (The Turkish Bath, 1862). This tondo (circular painting) of women relaxing in the Sapphic intimacy of an imagined seraglio was soon joined by similarly scandalous pieces made to order by Courbet. First, Halil bought or commissioned Courbet’s Vénus poursuivant Psyché de sa jalousie (Venus Pursuing Psyche Out of Jealousy, c.1863, destroyed in Berlin in World War II) – which was rejected by the Paris Salon as indecent. Later came La Jeune baigneuse (The Young Bather, 1866) and, later again, a ‘pendant’ to the Venus and Psyche picture: Le Sommeil (The Sleepers, 1866), of two naked women dozing in a dishevelled, visibly satisfied embrace.

Courbet’s commissions caused instant scandal. When news of Le Sommeil reached the local press in the artist’s hometown of Ornans, an article snorted that there was: ‘No need to tell you that it is just as indecent as the last [Vénus poursuivant Psyché]. After all, it is for a Turk!’ It is enough to make you wonder if Halil enjoyed playing to type, or, rather, to the average 19th-century Frenchman’s idea of his type.

L’Origine du monde followed. Or, rather, the painting we call L’Origine du monde: unsigned and undated, there is no record of it or its title until much later in its story. The identity of the model – perhaps De Tourbey herself or Halil’s later mistress Constance Quéniaux, perhaps simply a sitter of Courbet’s own finding – remains uncertain, despite valiant claims to the contrary. But there are traces, still, that show how word of the scandalous commission slipped out. The cover of the satirical magazine Le Hanneton (The Cockchafer) for 13 June 1867 shows a cartoon of Courbet surrounded by his best-known creations. Fat, dwarfish, holding a brimming glass of beer, he stands just beneath a rectangular canvas containing nothing but a fig leaf – the original little green curtain.

Unfortunately for Halil, it turned out that his fortune could not keep up the combined drains of mistresses, pictures and a gambling habit. In January 1868, he ran out of funds: most of the collection so assiduously assembled was sold, and its owner returned to the service of the Ottoman Empire. He died of a brain disease on 12 January 1879. Courbet, ruined by the legal and financial repercussions of his involvement with the defeated Commune, preceded him by just two years. He died, exiled in Switzerland, on 31 December 1877.

Gustave Courbet, Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), 1866, oil on canvas, 1.4 × 2 m. Courtesy: © RMN-Grand Palais, Paris, and Art Resource, New York

After the sale of Halil’s pictures, L’Origine disappears from history for two decades, only briefly surfacing on a Saturday in June 1889, in a boutique specializing in chinoiserie and japanerie, under the eyes of littérateur and diarist Edmond de Goncourt. Having spotted the ever-fussy De Goncourt’s boredom with the ‘mediocre products of the Empire of the Rising Sun’, the gallerist directed him towards a small painting of a building in a snowy landscape and asked if he knew what lay beneath it.2 A secret panel revealed L’Origine. No admirer of Courbet, De Goncourt recorded that he had to make honourable amends to him, finding ‘that belly […] as beautiful as the flesh of a Correggio’.3 He did not, though, think for one second of buying it.

Who it was sold to remains a mystery: after that Saturday in 1889, the painting once again disappears. Then, around 1910, it passed into the hands of Hungarian painter and collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany. A notable artist in his own right, Hatvany was a fully paid-up member of the interwar intelligentsia: the scion of a Jewish family ennobled by industrial success, who had with the next generation seamlessly transmuted their economic power into fine taste, finesse and cultural cachet. Complete with its modest covering of snowy landscape, L’Origine took up residence in the Baron’s bathroom in Budapest, where it would be seen by figures as notable as Arthur Koestler and Thomas Mann. With Hatvany, Courbet’s painting appears to have finally found its title. According to a guest who saw it at his Budapest mansion in 1936, the Baron referred to it as La Création du monde (The Creation of the World).

Almost immediately, though, La Création fell under threat of destruction. As World War II loomed, the Baron and his collection found themselves in serious danger of annihilation: first at the hands of the anti-Semitic Hungarian dictator Miklós Horthy; then at the hands of the occupying Nazi army; and, finally, as the Red Army ‘liberated’ Budapest, at the hands of the Soviets. Hatvany had wit enough to secrete his collection in various bank vaults under the names of gentile friends. When the SS came to raid his mansion in 1944, they found it empty. A year later, though, the Red Army, unprejudiced in their looting, simply ransacked every vault in the city. When they did, Hatvany lost some 800 pieces of art.

What happened next remains mysterious. The Soviet regime did not simply steal art for their museums – though vast quantities of the spoils of the war did end up in them. Despite carefully preserved documents relating to the sack of Budapest’s vaults, it is unclear when, whether or how much of the booty was expatriated. Shipments passed from eastern Europe to the USSR over the next few years, disappearing into the limbo of the state’s myriad railyards, warehouses and storerooms. Much of Hatvany’s collection was never seen again. The ongoing mystery about the collection’s location has even helped fuel a picturesque myth that the SS did find it after all, and secreted it in hidden rooms in a disused mine somewhere on the German-Czech border. Though many remain lost, some have resurfaced: in 2013, Tate Britain was embarrassed to discover that John Constable’s Beaching a Boat, Brighton (1824) belonged to Hatvany’s estate, to which it was soon returned.

L’Origine took less time to resurface. In the early 1950s, Hatvany, now living in Paris, was approached by a Soviet agent, who offered to sell him some of the stolen pictures. Among the 15 he was able to purchase was L’Origine. He did not keep it for long, though. In 1954 or 1955, it was bought at auction for 1,500,000 francs by Sigmund Freud’s pre-eminent French inheritor, the obscurantist and psychoanalyst-cum-literary-theorist Jacques Lacan – a man whose name rhymes with le con that he had purchased.

André Masson, Panneau masque de L’Origine du monde de Gustave Courbet (Mask Panel for Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World), 1955, oil on panel, 44 × 66 cm. Courtesy: © Adagp, Paris; photograph: Comité André Masson/Adagp, Paris

The rhyme between Lacan and his new possession was more than aural: in his fascination with, among other things, ‘the imaginary primordial enclosure formed by the imago of the mother’s body’, there can hardly have been a more perfect owner for the painting.4 A man at the centre of two movements – Structuralism and Post-Structuralism – which would make intellectual fetishes, respectively, out of origins and the impossibility of returning to them, Lacan was the perfect owner for a painting that laid claim to such a theological title.

With its entry into the febrile, liberated world of postwar Parisian intellectuals, you might expect L’Origine finally to come fully out of the dressing room, closet or bathroom. Lacan was no stranger to the sexual: an investigator of the mind with a Freudian fixation on the libido, his work returned to the mother as the origin of all desire, time and time again. He had even been, for a while, Pablo Picasso’s personal analyst. His wife, Sylvia, meanwhile, had previously been married to Georges Bataille, dedicated investigator of fetishes and author of an entire L’Histoire de l’érotisme (History of Eroticism, 1950–51). But L’Origine du monde – if by now it had finally adopted that title – remained hidden. With the snowscape now missing, the Lacans commissioned Sylvia’s brother-in-law, the Surrealist painter André Masson, to produce a new landscape for it. The white contours painted onto plain wood sketch out an evanescent scene; only if you know what was once beneath can you spot how carefully they map the lines of the vagina hidden below. However wittily disguised, the painting – by now well known by reputation from rumours and histories of erotic art – was still shocking enough to remain in its secret compartment.

The charge remained such that L’Origine would only appear on public display for the first time in 1988, after Lacan’s death. Even then, his widow sought to disguise its ownership: the accompanying plaque carried the lie, ‘Private collection, Japan’. Fictionally, ownership once again passed into the hands of a mysterious Easterner. Only after Sylvia’s death in December 1993 did it finally start making its way towards Room 20 in the Musée d’Orsay: its supposed cosmic birth paying off the Lacans’ inheritance tax.

It is a mundane end, in certain ways. But scandal still homes in on Courbet’s canvas. In 1994, when it appeared on the cover of Jacques Henric’s novel   Adorations perpétuelles (Perpetual Adorations), French police asked bookshop owners to remove the copies from their windows; in 2009, Portuguese police confiscated copies of Catherine Breillat’s Pornocratie (Pornocracy, 2001) for the same reason. Then, in 2011, Facebook’s internal censors deactivated the account of a French user for posting a picture of the painting: the offended user, Frédéric Durand-Baïssas, launched a court case which took seven years to come to a conclusion. The tribunal finally ruled against Facebook, but only on the grounds of not informing Durand-Baïssas of its decision to shut down his account. With Facebook promising not to censor copies of the painting in the future, the courts still avoid the topic of the question of whether or not L’Origine is pornographic. Whichever way you look at it, it is still causing convulsions.

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters issue 8 with the headline The Origins of the Origin of the World.

1 Théophile Gautier, Collection des tableaux anciens et modernes de S Exc Khalil Bey, 1867, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, p. 5

2–3 Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal des Goncourt: Memoires de la vie littéraire, vol. VII, 1895, Bibliothèque Charpentier, Paris, p. 64

4 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, 2007, trans. Bruce Fink, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, pp. 93–94

Tim Smith-Laing is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is writing a novel based on the life of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and a biography of Lady Luck @TimSmith_Laing