Gustave Courbet and The Origin of the World [L’Origine du monde, 1886]

L’Origine du monde by Gustave Courbet (1886). Collection Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) is a painting (oil on canvas) by the French artist Gustave Courbet from 1886. Its dimensions are 46 cm × 55 cm (18 in × 22 in). It is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

While most often viewed and understood purely through an aesthetic study and interpreted solely as erotic art, this painting is perhaps Courbet’s most highly philosophical work, and is a definitive example of Realism as an instrument in the communication of philosophy. From the choice of the title itself to the carefully defined positioning of the subject, it is made clear that though the commission for the painting was done at the behest of Khalil Bey, a diplomat of the Ottoman Empire, for his personal collection of erotic art, Courbet had an entirely different motive in mind.

On the pure aesthetic level, the spread out legs suggest intrigue and allure, enticing the viewer to draw their focus towards the center of the painting upon the genitals. With the face shrouded and out of view, leaving only the left breast in direct view, a sense of mystery is established, pulling the viewer into the midst of a visual seduction. In the slight contortion of the right leg, there is the hint of movement, further indicating the element of active passion, rather than suggesting that the subject might be sleeping or unconscious.

As with Eduard Manet‘s painting entitled Olympia, the eroticism apparent from a superficial viewing belies the conscious effort on the part of Courbet to communicate specific ideas not only regarding the female form and our understanding of women’s sexuality, but also on the nature of human existence. This is evidenced in the fact that the upper half of the subject’s body is covered with a white cloth, which serves as part of the backdrop. Being unable to see her face, we are likewise unable to gauge her reaction to the circumstances of the moment, nor are we able to see her arms, hands, or the lower half of her legs. A single breast is evident, while the other remains obscured by part of the white cloth upon which her body rests.

Some critics and historians have used this element of the painting as directly pointing to the erotic nature and its purpose as erotic art. However, given that the tradition in erotic art through the centuries generally has been to frame the human form as a whole, rather than to focus specifically on a particular part of the body, this is at best a superficial understanding of the painting. As an artist of conscience with a propensity for the passionate examination of life and the world, purely aesthetic viewings of any of his paintings do not do his work justice, and ignores the underlying symbolism inherent in his work.

Unlike his other renderings of the female form, the backdrop beyond the white cloth is nothing but blackness, hinting at the primordial void from where existence came forth. This leads us back to the choice of the title, which is yet another unusual feature which differentiates the work from erotic art in general. In contrast to the male body, the female form has been viewed and represented through history in various religious and philosophical contexts, as the embodiment of wisdom, or as an enigmatic mystery, to the principal source of life itself. In the ancient mythologies of various civilizations and in a number of mystical philosophies, wisdom has been personified as a woman (Greek Σοφíα Sophia), while in the Gnostic context this personification of the Sophia is expanded to the degree that she is both the instigator of the emanation of the physical universe as well as its liberator in being the source of its final destruction. Sophia in this context is both the first cause (Greek ἀρχή) Arche) and the final end of all existence.

The nude as an artistic subject is the human form reduced to its most basic and fundamental quality, and with the subject represented in this painting, faceless and without clear identity, we have the deconstruction of all ideas and concepts of Woman down to the most basic factor, that of Woman being the quintessential mystery that has confounded, allured, and alleviated Man from the moment of conception. As such, the penultimate statement being made by Courbet in this painting is that Woman is the source of life and the progenitor of human existence and all its many varied facets.

Collective authorship of Lexander Magazine staff writers

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