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Mystery behind art’s most scandalous vagina solved in France

The identity of the woman who posed for the most scandalous painting of the 19th century has been revealed. And she's Parisian.

Mystery behind art's most scandalous vagina solved in France
Photo: AFP (however the tricolor was added and placed by staff at The Local France)

The identity of the model who posed for the most scandalous painting of the 19th century, Gustave Courbet's “L'Origine du monde” (The Origin of the world), has finally been revealed.

Experts say they are “99 percent sure” the painting's notoriously naked nether regions belong to the Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux.

And here she is:

(BnF/Département des estampes et de la photographie)

The canvas has never lost its power to shock — bringing out the prude in Facebook, which censored profiles using it as late as 2011.

For decades art historians have been convinced that the naked torso and genitalia it depicts belonged to Courbet's lover, the Irish model Joanna Hiffernan.

In a typically Parisian love triangle, she was also romantically linked with his friend, the American artist James Whistler.

But doubts persisted — mainly because the dark pubic hair in the painting did not correspond with Hiffernan's mane of flaming red curls. 

Now documentary evidence found in the correspondence between the French writers Alexandre Dumas fils — the son of “The Three Musketeers” author — 
and George Sand points directly to a former dancer at the Paris Opera.

Queniaux was a mistress of the Ottoman diplomat Halil Sherif Pasha — aka Khalil Bey — when the picture was painted in the summer of 1866. 

And it was Halil who commissioned the painting from Courbet for his personal collection of erotica.





Competing courtesans

French historian Claude Schopp discovered the Queniaux connection when he was going through copies of Dumas' letters for a book.

One particular passage perplexed him: “One does not paint the most delicate and the most sonorous interview of Miss Queniault (sic) of the Opera.”

It was only when he consulted the handwritten original that he realised there had been a mistake in its transcription. “Interview” was in fact “interior”.

“Usually I make discoveries after working away for ages,” said the writer, whose new book on the find will be published this week. 

“Here I made it straight away. It almost feels unjust,” Schopp joked.

Schopp shared his discovery with the head of the French National Library's prints department, Sylvie Aubenas, who is also convinced that Queniaux was the model.

“This testimony from the time leads me to believe with 99 percent certainty that Courbet's model was Constance Queniaux,” she confirmed to AFP.

Queniaux was 34 at the time, and having retired from the Opera, was competing with the famed courtesan Marie-Anne Detourbay for Halil Pasha's affections.

Detourbay, sometimes known as Jeanne de Tourbey, held a famous salon and would later become the comtesse de Loyne. She was also thought by some to be the model for “L'Origine du monde”.

'La Traviata' link

But Aubenas said contemporary descriptions of Queniaux's “beautiful black eyebrows” corresponded better with the model's luxuriantly bushy maidenhair.

The library has several photographs of her including one by the famed photographic pioneer, Nadar. 

Aubenas believes the secret of the model's identity was known by the cognoscenti but was lost over time as Queniaux became a highly respectable 
lady of leisure known for her philanthropy. 

Another discovery by Schopp helped to clinch the argument, she said.

When she died in 1908, Queniaux left a Courbet painting of camellias in her will at whose centre is a lusciously open red blossom. 

Camellias were strongly associated with courtesans at the time thanks to Dumas' novel “The Lady of the Camellias”, which was adapted into Verdi's opera “La Traviata”.

“What better tribute from the artist and his patron to Constance?” Aubenas said, who believes it may have been a gift from Halil.

Born in Cairo, the pasha was a renowned art collector and gambler who came from a Turkish-Albanian family from what is now northern Greece.

He commissioned a series of major works from Delacroix including “The Women of Algiers” and Ingres' equally iconic and extravagantly fleshly depiction of a harem, “The Turkish Bath”.

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ARCHITECTURE

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the
crowds.

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.

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