In 1866, the French painter Gustave Courbet painted The Origin of the World, a painting that depicts a nude, her face cropped out of the frame with vagina,
torso, and breast in the foreground. Now, French historian Claude Schopp has identified the woman depicted in the infamous painting as Constance Quéniaux, “dancer at the Paris Opera, courtesan, mistress of rich men, companion of a celebrated composer, and—improbably at the end—a well-to-do older lady living on one of the most chic streets in Paris, the Rue Royale,” the New York Times reports.
Schopp wrote an award-winning biography on Alexandre Dumas the younger last year, and, in his research, he stumbled upon correspondence between Dumas and George Sand. In one letter, Dumas refers to Courbet’s model: “One doesn’t paint with one’s most delicate and sonorous brush the interview of Ms. Queniault of the Opera.” Or so Schopp thought until he revisited the typescript and realized it actually read “interior,” and that Quéniaux’s name was also misspelled. (Quéniaux was also one of Courbet’s mistresses.)
Quéniaux, Schopp discovered, was born outside of Paris in 1832 and eventually became a dancer at the Paris Opera’s ballet company. The writer Théophile Gautier and the composer Daniel-François-Esprit Auber were obsessed with her. She stopped dancing in 1859 after suffering an injury and eventually became a rich socialite.
There’s more—a lot more—in fact, an entire book’s worth—The Origin of the World: Life of the Model, out this week. “My only contribution was to make this object a subject,” Schopp told the Times. “Now she’s something else besides flesh. I wanted to restore a person... I wanted to restore dignity to a woman. And this woman, she surprised me.”