The £35m find that puts a face to Courbet's masterpiece

Unknown section of scandalous painting bought for just £1,200

A chance discovery may have unlocked the secrets behind one of the most notorious nudes in art history after a 19th-century portrait was unearthed in a bric-à-brac shop.

The Origin of the World by the French realist painter Gustave Courbet has hung on the walls of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for 18 years.

The 1866 painting of a reclining nude woman’s exposed genitals scandalised French society. There were no clues as to the model’s identity or an indication that it was part of a bigger canvas.

Now, an unnamed collector believes that a portrait of a woman’s head gazing skywards that he picked up on the cheap is a missing part of the work, and the world’s leading Courbet expert agrees.

The buyer said he had an intuition that the painting he had bargained down to €1,400 (£1,200) was actually more important than the humble surroundings he found it in made out, according to French magazine Paris Match. He became increasingly convinced that it was a Courbet.

Jean-Jacques Fernier, of the Courbet Institute, was initially sceptical when “John” brought him the work. But after two years of tests and analysis of the canvas and its brushwork has left him convinced that Origin had been cut into pieces. He was able to align the paintings through grooves in the frame.

One art historian from the Compagnie Nationale des Experts thought he detected the work of Carolus-Duran. “Absolutely not,” replied Sylvie Brame, the authority on Carolus-Duran. “The tempestuous, broad, sensual touch ... such a perfect, realist complexion – it’s a Courbet,” she said.

The magazine suggests that the portrait, picked up for peanuts, could be worth as much as €40m (£35m), while the experts pointed out there were probably more parts of the canvas in existence.

After scrutinising the head, experts believe the model for Origin was Jo Hifferman, the Irish mistress of James Whistler, who also had an affair with Courbet. The artist had painted her several times including in Portrait of Jo, of which he completed four versions, and Sleep, an erotically charged work where she is naked and entwined with another woman on a bed.

The addition of the head means “it loses some of its mystery and some of its charm”, Mr Fernier conceded, adding there had been a reason Courbet cut the head off. It was suggested the move was to protect the model.

Origin was commissioned by Khalil Bey, the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat, who later sold it to pay off his gambling debts. It was not meant to be seen publicly but it still caused scandal in Paris with one critic describing it as a “little monstrosity”.

Maxime du Camp said after it was painted: “There is a word which describes the kind of people capable of this sort of trash, worthy of illustrating the works of the Marquis de Sade, but this word I cannot pronounce in front of the reader, because it is only used in pork butchery.”

It vanished after the Second World War before it ended up in the Musée d’Orsay in 1995.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night