The £35m find that puts a face to Courbet's masterpiece
Unknown section of scandalous painting bought for just £1,200
Nick Clark is the arts correspondent of The Independent. He joined the newspaper in June 2007, initially reporting on the stock markets. He has covered beats including the City, and technology, media and telecoms and made the switch to arts in December 2011. He has also contributed articles to the sports section.
Thursday 07 February 2013
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.
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 Women think Irish men are the sexiest, survey finds
- 5 Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Indiana Jones sequel confirmed by Lucasfilm - but will Harrison Ford return to the franchise?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils