L’Origine du Monde

L’Origine du Monde

    Artist: Gustave Courbet
    Year: 1866
    Medium: Oil on canvas
    Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
    Dimension: 18 in × 22 in
    46 cm × 55 cm

This painting by Gustave Courbet was completed in 1866 and is just as controversial today as it was when it was commissioned. It was a private commission and one of several in a collection of like paintings, that is, a collection of erotic art. The collection is a tasteful celebration of the female body and each painting reached new heights of daring. The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet depicts a detailed view of the female genitalia and is his most daring creation. It is a famous painting that has the dubious honor of having achieved the epitome of the paradox, that is to say, it is famous but not often seen.

Courbet Nudes

Courbet was an accomplished painter of nudes and specialized in figurative compositions. He also painted landscapes and seascapes; however it is his nudes for which he is primarily remembered, thanks mainly to L’Origine du Monde (Origin of the World). He has been credited with being an innovator in realism and was especially interested in social issues, as depicted by his female nudes. Art historians do not place his work as part of the Neoclassical school or the Romantic School which featured predominantly in the nineteenth century, but rather, he followed the Realist School of Truth which he believed would break down social imbalances and contradictions. Courbet’s nudes were intended do precisely that.

The Pursuit of Truth

The pursuit of truth and the desire to portray realism led Courbet into the realms of erotic art, the culmination of which was L’Origine du Monde, a daring depiction of the female genitals in a close-up view and anyone who has viewed this painting can testify to the level of realism achieved. This painting is an erotic work and was previously banned from public view; however its notoriety has never diminished. Some art critics have described Courbet’s famous nudes as a libertine pastime, while others have an appreciation of the artistic symbolism.


L’Origine du Monde (by Gustave Courbet) is described as an anatomical description of a woman’s sexual organs which holds viewers in thrall. The realism is not attenuated in any way and while some critics have labeled it as pornographic, others see great beauty in celebrating the means by which the human race is increased. The amber color scheme has been described as refined and the painting style displays virtuosity while audacious. The painting was commissioned in 1866 and is painted with oil paints on canvas. It measures forty six cm high and fifty five cm in width.

It is worth noting that L’Origine du Monde does not show the woman’s feet, legs, thighs, stomach, hips, chest, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and head. It shows only the torso and genitalia and while many find it confronting, others appreciate the talent of Courbet in creating a sexual portrait of the intimate, yet life essence of the world. Courbet has managed to convey an impression of the whole woman through a portrait of the genitalia only, resulting in a painting which has become famous for its creativity as well as subject matter.

Artistic Influences

Courbet claimed on several occasions that he was descended from Titian and saw himself as a follower of Veronese and Correggio in the tradition of lyrical and carnal painting. In this tradition, Courbet has used generous and sensual brush-strokes together with subdued use of color. Comment has been made about the talent which has resulted in the depiction of a vulva looking out at the viewer, through judicious use of color for the flesh and the sheet, together with the veil and panels which hide the table the model is laying on.


L’Origine du Monde is now displayed openly and has a place in art history in the history of modern painting. For all that, the issue of voyeurism still remains and hangs like a cloud over this painting.