An Irishman's Diary

GUSTAVE COURBET, mentioned in passing yesterday, was a revolutionary on canvas as well as in real life

GUSTAVE COURBET, mentioned in passing yesterday, was a revolutionary on canvas as well as in real life. Like Caravaggio two centuries earlier, he took his human subjects from the world around him. Unlike Caravaggio, he gave them proportions that had hitherto been reserved for the supposedly worthier.

His picture of a funeral in his home town is the size of a small house. Which made it all the more shocking to the artistic establishment of mid-19th century Paris that the faces shown were his actual neighbours: poor, roughly-dressed provincials, depicted in epic scale. “How could anyone paint such ghastly people?” whined the critics.

In another behemoth, The Artist’s Studio, Courbet again used real figures to illustrate, in the work’s subtitle, “an allegory describing seven years of my life as an artist and a man”.

The models there range from his friend the poet Charles Baudelaire to an unnamed “Irish nurse”. The latter’s role in the allegory is unclear, but in any case she is portrayed breast-feeding a baby beside the easel where the painter himself sits, God-like (Courbet had an ego almost as big as his canvases), in the centre of the scene.


Both these huge compositions, which now occupy walls of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, were refused entry to the Universal Exhibition of 1855. So the artist had his own shack built to house them: grandly naming it the “Pavilion of Realism” after the style with which he became synonymous.

NOT THAT COURBETconfined himself to depicting "ghastly people", even by the critics' standards. Like most male painters, he had an eye for conventional beauty too, especially in the female form. On which note, sometime around 1860, he met and befriended a woman who became known widely in artistic circles as "La belle Irlandaise".

Her name was Joanna (or “Jo”) Hiffernan – you probably want to correct that, but it was how both she and her father spelt it – and her beauty was to make her something of a muse to Courbet, inspiring a series of paintings as well as the inevitable affair.

It was not her first muse job. Before she met Courbet, she had for years performed a similar role for James McNeill Whistler, with whom her relationship was such that Hiffernan’s father used to call Whistler “me son-in-law”.

The difference is that, while the American artist tended to paint her in dresses – white dresses at that – the Frenchman preferred her naked. As such she featured in a rather risqué picture called Sleep, which depicts two female nudes intertwined on a bed. And she may or may not have been the model for an even more notorious Courbet painting, The Origin of the World.

This too is a nude, but in keeping with his realism, pays more than usually frank attention to the subject’s genitalia. Never mind the Universal Exhibition, The Origin of the World was considered so shocking to 19th-century sensibilities that it was not exhibited publicly anywhere until the 1980s.

In fairness to Courbet, he did also paint Hiffernan with her clothes on. Thus in Portrait of Jo, he highlights the feature that seems to have most captivated admirers: her glorious mane of red hair. But it should be added that it was not just Hiffernan’s physical beauty that impressed people. She was also praised for her unschooled intelligence and wit, while at least one biographical source sees fit to mention her “fiery temper” too. (An Irish female red-head being called “fiery“: what were the chances?)

DESPITE HERpresumed affair with Courbet, Hiffernan remained faithful to Whistler, after a fashion. She spent at least 10 years of her later life looking after a son he had fathered by a "parlour-maid". And the last recorded sighting of her was at Whistler's funeral.

Her career in musedom by then long behind her, she was thought to have married a man named Abbot, somewhere on the Continent. She had also lived for a time in Nice, running an antiques store.

But the art world had lost track of her until Whistler died in 1903, and a woman came to his wake who, when she uncovered her head, was instantly recognised by one of the collectors present as “La Belle Irlandaise” of 40 years before. She stood by the coffin for “nearly an hour”, clearly moved. After that she disappeared back into obscurity.

Sad to say, none of the Courbet pictures I saw in Musée d’Orsay this week featured Hiffernan. The collection there does now include the notorious L’Origine du Monde, which, according to the catalogue was acquired in 1995 as part of a settlement with its owner “in lieu of inheritance tax”. But the picture was not on display when I visited.

Consequently I can’t offer an opinion as to whether the Irish beauty was in fact its model. Then again, in the absence of other evidence, the painting offers few clues. The features portrayed do not, after all, include the woman’s face. And it’s likely that even those with whom she was intimate might have struggled to identify her from the details provided.