The Mystery Behind One Of Art History’s Most Scandalous Paintings Has Just Been Resolved

Published September 26, 2018
Updated July 13, 2019

The decades-long debate on who's depicted in Gustave Courbet's 1866 painting The Origin of the World has seemingly come to an end.

The Origin of the World

Cesar Lucas Abreu/Cover/Getty ImagesThe Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet was painted in 1866.

A French historian claims that he has inadvertently uncovered one of the most scandalous mysteries in the art history community — the identity of the nude model who posed for Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World.

The painting, which features a close-up rendering of female genitalia has been called “art’s most scandalous vagina.” The model’s face isn’t exhibited in the painting and only depicts the female model from the chest down. A painting as intimate as this was naturally quite shocking for the 19th-century public.

Indeed, the painting proved stirring enough that Facebook once censored profiles that featured it, which led to a 2011 French court case.

The model’s identity has been a mystery since the painting’s inception, leaving art historians to debate the matter since.

It’s been long believed that the woman’s identity belonged to Courbet’s lover, the Irish model Joanna Hiffernan. There were speculations here though, as Hiffernan was known to have fiery red curls and the genitalia featured in Courbet’s work is regaled with dark pubic hair instead.

This was until French historian Claude Schopp uncovered evidence which actually points to a different woman entirely — the Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux.

Constance Queniaux

TwitterResearchers are 99 percent sure that the identity of the mystery vagina belongs to Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux.

Schopp discovered a connection between Courbet’s model’s identity and communications between Alexandre Dumas and his friend George Sand while reading through copies of Dumas’s letters for a book.

He had been curious about a particular line he had previously translated as:

“One does not paint the most delicate and the most sonorous interview of Miss Queniault (sic) of the Opera.”

Schopp realized that the word “interview” should have actually read “interior,” which to Schopp indicated that the painting’s model was actually Queniaux.

Constance Queniaux was a mistress of the Ottoman diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha when the picture was painted in 1866, and it is now believed that Halil himself actually commissioned the painting for his own personal collection.

These facts indicated to Schopp that Queniaux was the face behind the infamous erotic portrait, and not Courbet’s lover — a discovery that he happened upon completely by coincidence.

Constance Queniaux

SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty ImagesGustave Courbet’s The origin of the world officially has a face to match its body: Constance Queniaux.

“Usually I make discoveries after working away for ages,” said Schopp. “Here I made it straight away. It almost feels unjust.”

Schopp shared his discovery with the head of the French National Library’s prints department, Sylvie Aubenas. She agreed with Schopp, and concluded that his theory as to who Courbet’s nude model was is as accurate as it can possibly be.

“This testimony from the time leads me to believe with 99 percent certainty that Courbet’s model was Constance Queniaux,” Aubenas reported.

Aubenas said that descriptions of Queniaux’s “beautiful black eyebrows” matched up with the color of the nude model’s pubic hair. She also believes that it was once fairly well known that Constance Queniaux was the nude model behind this painting, but that it was lost over time as Queniaux rose in the ranks of society, becoming a lady of leisure and known for her philanthropic work.

But as is demonstrated by Schopp’s latest discovery, not all of the evidence that linked Queniaux to the nude model in Courbet’s famous painting was erased.

Further, upon her death in 1908, Queniaux left a floral Courbet painting which featured a blossoming red camellia in the center. This style and flower were closely associated with courtesans of the time, due in part to a work by Dumas, The Lady of the Camellias.

“What better tribute from the artist and his patron to Constance?” Aubenas posits.

Indeed, how else could Courbet and his patron have thanked this woman for lending her genitalia to art history than by gifting her the painting of a metaphorical one?

After learning about Constance Queniaux, the model for Gustave Courbet’s The Origin Of The World, read about the story of a $160 million painting that was stolen, only to be found decades later in the home of an elderly married couple. Then, check out the story of how Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa

Bernadette Deron
Bernadette Deron is a digital media producer and writer from New York City who holds a Master's in publishing from New York University. Her work has appeared in Yahoo, MSN, AOL, and Insider.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
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Deron, Bernadette. "The Mystery Behind One Of Art History’s Most Scandalous Paintings Has Just Been Resolved.", September 26, 2018, Accessed May 23, 2024.