Experts are “99% sure” that Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) stars Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux.
The artwork is controversial even today. Facebook was criticised for censoring profiles who posted the image as recently as 2011.
Art historians have been convinced for decades that the naked torso and genitalia the painting depicts belonged to Courbet’s lover, the Irish model Joanna Hiffernan, who also had a relationship with his friend, American artist James Whistler.
However, doubts were raised because of the model’s dark pubic hair, which did not correspond with Hiffernan’s famously red locks.
Now, a book to be published by Claude Schopp in early October reveals correspondence between the son of Alexandre Dumas and George Sand that points directly to the ballerina, Queniaux.
The French historian discovered the connection when he was going through copies of Dumas’s letters, according to French publication Liberation.
One particular passage perplexed him: “One does not paint the most delicate and the most sonorous interview of Miss Queniault (sic) of the Opera.”
When he consulted the handwritten original that he realised there had been a mistake in its transcription. “Interview” was in fact “interior”.
“Usually I make discoveries after working away for ages,” Schopp told AFP. “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, who is also convinced that Queniaux was the model.
“This testimony from the time leads me to believe with 99% certainty that Courbet’s model was Constance Queniaux,” she said.
She said contemporary descriptions of Queniaux’s “beautiful black eyebrows” corresponded better with the model’s pubic hair.
Queniaux was 34 at the time the painting was completed in the summer of 1866 and, having retired from the Opera, was competing with the famed courtesan Marie-Anne Detourbay for the affections of Halil Şerif Pasha – aka Khalil Bey – an Ottoman diplomat.
It was Halil who commissioned the painting from Courbet for his personal collection of erotica. Aubenas believes the secret of the model’s identity was known by the cognoscenti but was lost over time as Queniaux became a respectable lady of leisure.
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