An Irishman's Diary


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.

For those unfamiliar with the picture and not in a position to Google it immediately, I should explain that L’Origine du Monde features a female nude, from shoulder to thigh only, and with a frankness about the parts in between that was shocking in 1866. So far ahead of its time was the painting, indeed, it was not publicly exhibited anywhere until the 1980s.

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, bought for a song in an antiques shop in 2010.

The new picture is of a reclining brunette female’s head and shoulders. And this week – lo! it was publicly identified as Hiffernan, painted by Courbet. But – lo again! – investigations have shown that its proportions, brush stokes, even the grain of the canvas, all match with L’Origine du Monde: suggesting that it was once part of the same picture.

A leading Courbet expert has declared it so, and among the consequences is that the new painting is being valued at €40 million, or €39.98 million more than it cost.

There is some scepticism, it’s true. Another Courbet expert, admitting she had only seen photographs, suggested it looked very different from other known portraits of Hiffernan. And the French national museum body is withholding judgment on Courbet’s authorship of it.

But with the haughtiness of an artist, the authenticator has dismissed the opinions of “civil servants” as irrelevant. “I don’t give a damn what they think,” he riposted. “I am the official Courbet expert and I have said it is by him.” The assumption, for now, is that the painter split the original picture to prevent identification of the model. Being Courbet, however, he may also have been making a statement. He had already shocked French art sensibilities world by painting ordinary people in the epic scale previously reserved for religious or heroic subjects. So the isolated genitalia, with the grandiose title, might have been a logical development.

Courbet was a revolutionary outside the studio as well as in, and it’s a coincidence that he should be in the news this week because, Hiffernan apart, an experience from his later years has echoes in latter-day Ireland.

During the Paris Commune of 1871, his sympathies saw him entrusted with control of the city’s museums. In this role he suggested that the Napoleonic column at Place Vendôme be dismantled, and its bronze plates – made from captured Russian cannons – turned into a mere exhibit in a military museum instead.

His objections were two-fold: it glorified war and it was ugly. At first, the communards ignored his suggestion, but later dismantled the column anyway. And when, post-Commune, the new government decided to restore it, they also decided to make Courbet pay for the work.

The cost was eventually calculated at 323,000 francs. But in a deal similar to the one agreed in Brussels this week, the artist – then in his late 50s – was allowed to pay in 33 annual instalments. In the end, he escaped the debt entirely, although it’s hard to find a comforting moral in the story. On the last day of 1877, hours before the first instalment became due, he died from the effects of drinking.

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