The Origin of the World

L’Origine du monde, Gustave Courbet, 1866

 

At the time Courbet was working on the painting his favorite model was a young woman, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as Jo. Her lover at the time was the American painter James Whistler, a friend of Courbet.

During the 19th century, the display of the nude body underwent a revolution whose main activists were Courbet and Édouard Manet. Courbet rejected academic painting and its smooth, idealized nudes, but he also directly recriminated the hypocritical social conventions of the Second Empire, where eroticism and even pornography were acceptable in mythological or oneiric paintings.

 

The putative upper section of L’Origine du monde

 

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

 

Courbet did another painting whose model was Joanna Hiffernan. During his whole career, Courbet did four portraits of Hiffernan. She was probably the model for L’Origine du monde, which might explain Courbet’s and Whistler’s brutal separation a short while later. Whistler then returned to London. In spite of Hiffernan’s red hair contrasting with the darker pubic hair of L’Origine du monde, the hypothesis that Hiffernan was the model for it prevails.

 

Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, circa 1984-86

 

L’Origine de la Guerre, Orlan, 1989

 

The image is also referenced as inspiring Catherine Breillat’s filming of the female genitalia in her 2004 film Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell)

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The Sleeper in the Valley

L’Homme Blessé, (The Wounded Man), a self-portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1844-1854

 

LE DORMEUR DU VAL

C’est un trou de verdure, où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

Arthur Rimbaud

 

______________________________________________

 

“It is a green hollow where a stream gurgles,
Crazily catching silver rags of itself on the grasses;
Where the sun shines from the proud mountain:
It is a little valley bubbling over with light.

A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed,
With the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue cresses,
Sleeps; he is stretched out on the grass, under the sky,
Pale on his green bed where the light falls like rain.

His feet in the yellow flags, he lies sleeping. Smiling as
A sick child might smile, he is having a nap:
Cradle him warmly, Nature: it is cold.

No odour makes his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast
At peace. There are two red holes in his right side.”

 

This poem, written in 1870 by the 16-year old Rimbaud, is partially in the classic form but already announces his future avant-garde poems. When he wrote this piece, France was at war with Prussia, and Rimbaud was frequently running away from home and traveling by foot.