Origin of the World, oil on canvas, 46 cm × 55 cm (18 in × 22 in), 1886, Gustave Courbet – Photography, Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
I sincerely doubt that Courbet intended to make a “feminist” work when he painted this, at least not in the sense we understand the term today. But if we agree that a work can be deemed feminist when challenging a current predominant and limited view on women, then “the Origin of the world” is certainly one.
Until Courbet’s time women in erotic paintings would be portrayed symbolically and within a mythological framework. Gustave Courbet brought the real woman in the forefront therefore creating one of the greatest feminist artworks in the history of art.
Ironically enough, and in a very “un-feminist” way, as many modern day feminists would view it, the work is believed to have been commissioned by an Ottoman diplomat as an addition to his personal collection of erotic pictures. This close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, would indeed meet the commission’s requirements, but do it in a very realist manner (honoring Courbet’s notoriety as one of the leaders of the Realist painters): This realist nature of the work is exactly where its subversiveness, or, to use a more fashionable term, disruptiveness lies. As mentioned above, erotic painting to that day portrayed women with a mythological pretext, that is, any allusion to the erotic was made in a symbolic, therefore indirect way. Courbet rendered these mythological garments useless, directly challenging the social hypocrisy they represented: Eroticism and even pornography were accepted in the framework of mythological or oneiric paintings but not in the framework of reality.
Through its title and also the unusual angle of the subject the work also serves as a direct affirmation or rather declaration of woman’s ability to bring life. To the observation that the connection between woman and fertility is nothing new in art, one could retort that what is new here would, again, be that we are confronted by a real woman and not a woman-symbol of fertility, or a woman-mythological creature: One can maintain that “The Origin of the world” is a tribute to woman, not only because it shifts the focus in the female nude from the erotic in a banal way to the erotic in a deeper sense connected to nature’s plan, but also because the female body here appears to be something even more than “the origin of the world”. Being presented outside the hypocritical social conventions, the female body can now be for and in itself. And so can woman.
Not surprisingly, the work was viewed as overly crude and daring by its contemporaries, creating an uproar in the art circles of the day. More than that, it seems to be generating controversy again and again to this day, in a way proving that if a declaration lives on in it, it is one our society is not yet ready to accept.