The year was 1866 and Courbet was already a well-known painter in France for his technical skill, but mostly for his critical and corrosive attitude towards the bourgeois society and its moral values, which he criticized whenever he had the chance. Courbet was a staunch socialist, arrogant and self-confident. However, this isn't enough to justify the work of art he created during that year and that would become his most famous. Depicting frontally a woman's thighs and female genitalia, The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) deeply shook the artistic community at the time. And then some!
The painting has had a bumpy ride. It is said that a Turkish diplomat called Khalil-Bey, while passing through Paris, ordered a painting from Courbet, that would be this one. Khalil-Bey was an erotic art colector and he had already bought another painting from the same artist named The Sleep, picturing two women lying naked on a bed in sensuous poses. He already had Ingres' famous The Turkish Bath, among other works.
Soon after, Khalil-Bey was forced to sell various works of art from his collection to pay off his gambling debts. Hidden under another, milder painting, The Origin of the World was bought by an antiques shop, travelling from one owner to another until his last owner, the famous French pschoanalyst Jacques Lacan. After his death, the family donated it to the Musée d'Orsay, where it currently is.
The painting is deeply disturbing, even shocking. The uneasiness felt by the viewer looking so directly at the genitalia that is so unashamedly exhibited is overpowering. There is a sort of shyness, of embarrassment that is almost instinctive and that is revealed in us while watching it. More than violate the intimacy of the object that's represented, he is violating the public. Courbet loved doing that, although he had never before dared to go this far. Why did he dare to this time?
At the time, at the Academy, students were trained by drawing the classical statues with the idealized body. Those statues, Apolos and Aphrodities, weren't in any way asexual, but their representation was stereotyped, camouflaged or disfigured. Men usually had a leaf covering their genitals while in women nothing was seen besides the continuing skin from their stomachs. Courbet hated the scholars and their formulas - he said he could only paint what he saw.
This painting emerges, then, as a protest against academism, but also against the phoniness reigning in nineteenth century Art and Society. It represents the definitive liberation of the artist from every possible stereotype! Meaningful is the fact that the controversy is due to the topic not the pictorial qualities of the painting - whether it was well painted or not. The Origin of the World was an inspired work of art, visionary even, a most important aesthetic act and a work of grandeur, Modern painting might just have begun here, with the origin is a woman's sex.
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