'The Origin of the World'

'The Origin of the World'
Gustave Courbet self-portrait with pipe ("L'homme à la pipe"), between 1848 and 1849, Musée Fabre, Montpellier
Enter through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear, and many choose to travel it. But how narrow is the gate that leads to life, how rough the road, and how few there are who find it – Matthew 7:13-14.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Is there a more provocative image in the history of painting? Vagina gentium. Courbet’s L'Origine du monde (1866) was never intended for public display, but it is ubiquitous on the Web and it was tagged by a Me Too activist in 2024:

Courbet's other provocative painting that year is known variously as Le Sommeil (Sleep) and Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers), and we know what they've been doing.

"Le Sommeil" (Sleep), 1866, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

Courbet has been poorly served by biographers and art historians. From a "boorish provincial," he is now "the most arrogant man in France" and "an egomaniac" - patronizing judgments that mimic his 19th century critics as much as what Courbet said about himself.

For it is his sense of irony and his penchant for being a troublemaker (like those other troublemakers Manet and Daumier) that are most misunderstood. His mocking of the art establishment and the religious authorities seems to bring out the worst in people.

When I am dead, let it be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty.

Below is the Musée Courbet in his home town of Ornans, near the Swiss border.


Other links:

  • Early on, Courbet illustrated George Sand's Lélia.
  • He was much inspired by contemporary photography - Baudelaire sniffed that photography had become "the refuge of failed painters with too little talent" but its impact upon 19th century painting and literature was undeniable (see Lewis Carroll).
  • Also see the earlier Delacroix and Ingres.
  • For a Daumier satire.
  • For other lesbian paintings here.

By the way, it is worth noting the way in which the vagina has been associated metaphorically with a bleeding wound, and not just by men. Instead of the Corazón sangrante bleeding heart, it's the vagina as religious icon... Christ's wound at Calvary, for example, which inspired Catherine of Siena to "slake her thirst" upon it - is that a eucharistic image or a sexual image as a number of gay theorists now argue?

Or consider the masochism of the psychoanalysts: Freud and the Vagina Dentata (although he never used that exact phrase) and Jung where the penis is the Holy Spear. Or the masochism of the radical feminists (Dworkin stands out) for whom the vagina is the Great Wound, mocking the Christian metaphor and men at the same time. Or The Vagina Monologues, where the vagina is celebrated by being violated and raped repeatedly. Nowadays there is more than enough material to fill out college classes in Vaginal Aesthetics and why not? But I'd take The Dinner Party any day. To finish, one more Courbet, Woman with White Stockings:

"Les Bas Blancs," (Woman with White Stockings), 1864, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia