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.
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.