20 February 2013

Curtains to Carpet for Courbet

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) probably would have wanted to be remembered for his major works of Realism like The Stone Breakers (Les Casseurs de pierres – destroyed in 1945) and A Burial at Omans (Un enterrement à Ornans) or his role in the Paris Commune, but probably not for L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World). In his What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye Will Gompertz makes the point that Courbet:
… wanted to get real, and paint ordinary subjects that the Academy and polite society considered to be vulgar, like the poor. Mind you, if they found the realism of a painting featuring a peasant on a pathway crude, they would have choked on their fine wine had they seen Courbet's treatment of another subject. His painting The Origin of the World (1866) is one of the most notorious works in art history, famed for its blunt, no-holds-barred portrayal of a naked female torso shown only from breast to thigh, with legs wide open, and cropped by Courbet to achieve maximum (porno) graphic effect. It is a sexually frank picture that is not for the squeamish now; back then it was for private eyes only. In fact, it remained that way for over 100 years, until 1988 when it was shown for the first time in a public exhibition.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the picture has a clouded history. Courbet sold it to a Turkish-Egyptian diplomat who would reveal its charms to guests from behind a green curtain. After passing through various other hands, in 1955 it became the property of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his wife, and after her death was accepted into the Musée d’Orsay collection in 1995.

The model for L'Origine du monde has often been thought to be Joanna Hiffernan, an Irishwoman who was the subject of other more conventional portraits by Courbet (eg La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo)) and by James McNeill Whistler (eg Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl and No II) and was also the latter’s mistress. The identity of the model has been under discussion again after a ‘world exclusive' in Paris Match on 7 February (left) which revealed the claim by Jean-Jacques Fernier, an expert on Courbet and author of the catalogue raisonné , that an unsigned painting of a woman's head (below) had been part of an original larger canvas. Laboratory tests showed that the pigment, brush strokes and canvas appeared to match in both paintings.

But the Musée d'Orsay said the test results showed only that the two paintings used the same pigment, canvas and paint brushes, all common at the time. In Le Monde the art critic Philippe Dagen had doubts as to the pictures’ similarity in style in terms of the light, the touch, the skin texture, and the colour range. Even more unhelpfully, the French Culture Ministry ruled out the conduct of cross-tests. A week after its original scoop, Paris Match returned to the fray, but, apart from disparaging the sceptics, could only offer in support of its case a claim that Fernier had seen L’Origine before its being handed to the Musée d’Orsay and that the painted canvas extended over the edges of the stretcher (le tableau se prolongeait sur ses bords).

The Irish Times seems to have taken an interest in L’Origine because of Hiffernan’s roots. Frank McNally in An Irishman’s Diary commented:
When I last wrote about Gustave Courbet’s notorious painting, The Origin of the World, suggesting it was a depiction of his Irish-born muse, Joanna Hiffernan, a reader e-mailed me pointing to a flaw in the theory. Famously beautiful, Hiffernan was also famously red-haired, her gloriously Hibernian tresses much admired in 1860s Paris. By contrast, as my correspondent put it delicately, the woman in the painting appeared to be a “brunette”. And since, as he added less delicately, “the collars and cuffs usually match”, it followed that the sitter (she’s more of a lier, in fact) could not have been Hiffernan. … And yes, I too had noticed the discrepancy to which the reader referred: especially since my column had been accompanied by a full portrait of Hiffernan, painted by another admirer, James McNeill Whistler. But I had opted for light brush strokes in dealing with the subject. Until, challenged, I suggested that Courbet might had have tactical reasons for changing the hair colour. For one thing, Hiffernan was then Whistler’s lover. In any case, Courbet might have felt the need to protect the model’s anonymity. And whereas brunettes are always commonplace among the Parisian muse community, giving his nude red hair might have reduced the list of suspects to one. That column was written only last August, after I visited the Musée d’Orsay, where the picture resides. Now I learn that, even then, tests were already under way elsewhere on a suspected but previously undocumented Courbet, …
In August 2007 Mark Hutchinson reviewed L’Origine du Monde Histoire d’un tableau de Gustave Courbet by Thierry Savatier and remarked that:
… the chapter reviewing the possible models for the painting is nuanced and persuasive. (The author finds none of the flesh-and-blood candidates, least of all Whistler’s mistress Jo, very plausible, and thinks that Courbet, who had a large collection of nude photographs, probably worked from a “stereograph” by Auguste Belloc, who employed some of the same models as Courbet.)
I suspect that Paris Match and Fernier are better off sticking with scientific tests rather than McNally’s novel area of connoisseurship, and that this may be a good point to contemplate Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. III (1865-7), with Hiffernan and Milly Jones, the wife of an actor friend of Whistler’s, on her left.

The way that the Paris Match story was covered (mot juste in the circumstances) by the media is probably a study in itself.  Online in the UK, the Daily Telegraph showed just the top half of the Match’s spread, while the Daily Mail mentioned it briefly, and without a picture, at the end of a well-illustrated story about the wholesome Isleworth Mona Lisa. The Times carpeted the problem in its print edition with graphics (left) reminiscent of its Wapping neighbour, the Sun. Whereas in France? Well this was the news on France 2 at 13:00 hours!

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