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Courbet’s Scandalous Nude: Has One of Art History’s Greatest Mysteries Finally Been Solved?

Experts now convinced the model behind Courbet’s infamous work was Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux

Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du Monde, 1866, being installed in a museum in France. Courtesy: AFP, Getty Images; photograph: Sebastien Bozon

Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du Monde, 1866, being installed in a museum in France. Courtesy: AFP, Getty Images; photograph: Sebastien Bozon

Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du Monde, 1866, being installed in a museum in France. Courtesy: AFP, Getty Images; photograph: Sebastien Bozon

Experts say they are ‘99% sure’ that they have finally discovered the identity of the model who posed for Gustave Courbet’s scandalous L’origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) (1866). A new book claims that the nether regions depicted in the painting belong to the Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux.

While historians have long thought that the nude chest and genitalia belonged to the French painter’s lover, the Irish model Joanna Hiffernan, the dark pubic hair in the painting did not match Hiffernan’s red hair. A book published by the French historian Claude Schopp in October claims that the correspondence of the son of Alexandre Dumas provides a new revelation.

One passage from the letters included the statement: ‘One does not paint the most delicate and the most sonorous interview of Miss Queniault [sic] of the Opera.’ Schopp later realized, after checking through the original letters, that ‘interview’ had been transcribed incorrectly from ‘interior’.

Schopp took his findings to Sylvie Aubenas, head of the French National Library’s prints department. ‘This testimony from the time leads me to believe with 99% certainty that Courbet’s model was Constance Queniaux,’ Aubenas said. She also said that descriptions of Queniaux’s beautiful black eyebrows’ made a better match for the colour of the hair seen in the painting.

The Ottoman diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha (Khalil Bey) commissioned the painting for his erotica collection – at the time, Queniaux was Halil’s mistress. Aubenas speculated that the identity of Courbet’s model was gradually forgotten as Queniaux ascended to respectable society. The painting is currently on display at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay.

A further discovery appeared to enforce Schopp’s discovery. On her death in 1908, Queniaux left a painting by Courbet of camellias in her will – the artwork featured an open red blossom at its centre. At the time, camellias were often associated with courtesans, in part because of Dumas’s book The Lady of the Camellias (1848).

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