The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet in 1866 (Realism)
When Gustave Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World” went on permanent display at the Musée d’Orsay in 1995, it was emerging from what must be one of the longest periods of visual quarantine in the history of art. Painted sometime in 1866, for the better part of 130 years it had been cordoned off in private collections, its existence known only to a small group of people, few of whom left any record of the work.
Even Courbet, with his well-known disregard for convention, seems for once to have erred on the side of caution. Neither signed nor dated, the picture was never mentioned by him in writing.
Everywhere you turn in the painting’s history, you meet with the same pattern of secrecy and obfuscation. The man thought to have commissioned the picture, a wealthy Turkish-Egyptian diplomat named Khalil Bey, kept it hung behind a green cover in his private dressing room. When Edmond de Goncourt came across it, some twenty-three years later, in 1889, it was concealed by a second Courbet, “Le Château de Blonay”, in a double-bottomed frame. In 1913, it passed into the hands of a Hungarian collector, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, who kept it under lock and key in his town house in Budapest. The last and best-known of the private owners, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, hung it in his workroom at Guitrancourt, where it was again concealed by a sliding panel, painted by his brother-in-law André Masson.
Today, it hangs in the same room at the Musée d’Orsay as Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”. The Origin of the World has taken its proper place in the history of modern painting. But it still raises the troubling question of voyeurism.