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Joseph Kaminski

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July 20, 2017

Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” and the Censorship of Art


Disclaimer: Gourbet’s “The Origin of the World”, translated from it’s original French title of “L’Origine du monde”, is considered NSFW due to it’s portrayal of the female body. It may be inappropriate to view it in a workplace setting.

The world of art has always danced with what modern Western society would deem as “inappropriate”; and in return, censorship has always been rampant throughout different mediums of portraying art in general. From nude statues to risque paintings, art has been censored everywhere from museum brochures to social media. The perfect example of this is Gustave Courbet’s 1866 oil-on-canvas painting The Origin of the World. 

Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet

L’Origine du monde (“The Origin of the World”), oil on canvas 1866.

The painting portrays a close-up view of the lower half and abdomen of a naked model with her legs spread. It, for centuries, was labelled as nothing more than pornographic material rather than eroticism in art. It has been banned from many social media platforms, refused by a plethora of different museums, and attacked by divisions of different governments.

In February of 1994 – 128 years after the painting’s completion – the French police force made “visits” to several bookstores to have a book by Jacques Henric [“Adorations perpétuelles (Perpetual Adorations)”] removed from the windows because the cover of the book portrayed Courbet’s work of art. In February of 2009 – 143 years after the painting’s completion – the Portuguese police force in Braga confiscated the book Pornocratie by Catherine Breillat from bookstores because it had L’Origine du monde dawned on its front cover. Local artists turned the unfolded events into a controversy, claiming such censorship was unnecessary and unwelcome. The police returned with a statement claiming that they needed to “maintain public order” as Portuguese law forbid the public display of pornographic material.

There’s those words again. Pornographic material. The world of art has battled this simple understatement for centuries. Even the greatest achievements in art have been obscured by what society deems appropriate or not. Michelangelo’s own works of “nakedness” were censored by one of his own pupils, who was commissioned by the Cardinals to paint briefs and tunics over the genitals that covered the Sistine Chapel.

There is nothing wrong with a naked body in its self. It is human shame and greed that brings down the opinionated platform that many people – especially traditionalists and those in orthodox religions – ashamed of art that uses nudity as a foundation to express emotion. The threat of “lust” is a societal movement that, when summed up, equates to religious morality and nothing more. The human body is nothing near shameful, and the question revolving around whether porn and nudist /erotic art are similes is unreasonable at best.

The Origin of the World’s origin story is still up in the air. It may have been inspired by previous works of scandalous art by Manet and other provocative artists within the 19th century. It may have some symbolic meaning tied to its title, as a powerful message claiming that women hold power over men through the definition of birth. It may have just been an excuse for Courbet to paint a model’s genitals. One thing remains clear: the painting pisses off Facebook enough to suspend the accounts of people who post pictures of it.

Gustave Courbet, La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo) 1865–1866.

At the time of its creation, Gustave Courbet was working with a young model by the name of Joanna “Jo” Hiffernan, a lover of American painter James Whistler – who, at the time, was a close friend to Courbet. The French painter oftentimes referred to Joanna as his “favorite” to work with.

He managed to paint four excellent confirmed pieces of Hiffernan throughout his career, with excellent attention her her striking red hair (as seen in his 1865-1866 portrait La belle Irlandaise, which currently resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Although Joanna seemed like the perfect candidate for the identity of the woman in The Origin of the World, it wasn’t until recently that we’ve been able to prove it. In February of 2013, a proclaimed expert on Courbet’s work named Jean-Jacques Fernier professionally authenticated a a painting of a young woman’s head and shoulders as being the original upper-section of the controversial masterpiece. Somehow or another, the head was severed or purposely removed from the original work.

L'Origine du monde

The “upper section” of L’Origine du monde, which was identified after 2+ years of analysis by Jean-Jacques Fernier.

The painting was commissioned by Khalil Bey, a diplomat and former ambassador of the Ottoman Empire who had previously dealt with relations between the Empire and Greece and Russia. He had settled down in a new home in Paris, France around the time he contacted Gustave Courbet for unique works of art. He specifically wanted to grow his personal collection of “erotic art”, and “erotic art” he was given when Courbet handed over The Origin of the World in 1886.

Bey’s finances weren’t stable. Gambling ruined the former diplomat’s fine tastes, and The Origin of the World found itself being auctioned off to different private collections. An antique dealer named Antoine de la Narde bought it from him shortly after his first financial difficulties in 1868. Edmond de Goncourt, legendary French writer and art critic, stumbled upon it hidden in an antique shop in 1889. A collector by the name of Baron Ferenc Hatvany got a hold of it in 1910, and he carted it off to Budapest. Hatvany held onto it until it was stolen by Soviets towards the end of World War II. Hatvany wanted the painting back to such an extreme that he paid a ransom on it. When he moved to Paris, he was only allowed to bring one work of art with him. He chose to bring The Origin of the World. 

It stayed in his possession until 1955, when it was sold to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan for ₣1,500,000. Lacan kept it in his home until his death in 1981, and it was transferred to the French government to settle the inheritance tax. It made its way to the Musée d’Orsay, a museum in Paris, in 1995. It has remained on the museum’s walls ever since, along with forty-eight other paintings by Gustave Courbet.

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