Is the Lost Head of “L’Origine du Monde” an Irish One?


Paris Match magazine claim to have found the "rest" of Gustave Courbet's highly controversial masterpiece from 1866, but is the original model and Irishwoman?

A spokesman from The Musée d’Orsay has dismissed as “pure fantasy” the notion put forward by an expert on the painter Gustave Courbet, according to which the painting “L’Orgigine du Monde” (the Origin of the World) is part of a larger painting whose head he claims to have identified.

The expert in question is one Jean-Jacques Fernier – author of a catalogue of the works of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) – thinks that the smouldering representation of a woman’s genital area was cut out of a much larger nude representing a woman with her arms extended.

Fernier believes that a small oil painting on canvas of a woman’s head turned to the side and seeming to be in the throes of pleasure is the head that goes with the famous vagina.

The painting of the woman’s head was bought for €1,400 by a collector at a Parisian antiquity shop in 2010. In last Thursday’s “world exclusive” edition of Paris Match, the owner claims to be convinced that he has found an original Courbet.

The claim hasn’t just come out of a brief analysis and Fernier asserts that his grandiose claim is the result of two years of forensic work. If he is right, then the most likely owner of the vulva seen by millions is that of Irishwoman Joanna Hiffernan.

"La Belle Irlandaise" by Courbet, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

“La Belle Irlandaise” by Courbet, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The redhead was Courbet’s lover and favourite model at the time and he painted her in many other different poses. Before that, she was the muse and lover of the American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Whistler is alleged to have broken with Hiffernan after she posed for another Courbet painting entitled Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), which depicts two naked women asleep on a bed.

Little is known of Hiffernan’s life before and after her significant involvement with two of the most talked-about artists of the 19th century. She led a somewhat bohemian lifestyle and lived in London for a while with Whistler before meeting Courbet. After 1880, she moved back to London where she looked after Whistler’s illegitimate child (from another relationship). Thereafter, she disappeared from circulation and was reported to have moved to Nice, where she sold antiquities at a market.

Guess who? "L'Origine du Monde" by Courbet.

Guess who? “L’Origine du Monde” by Courbet.

The debate continues, with Fernier insisting that his find is genuine and the Orsay gallery labelling him a pedlar of fantasy. One wonders if Hiffernan were alive today, would she claim the painting of her own lady parts?

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