A 152-year-old art mystery has finally been given a face.
Claude Schopp, biographer of the French author Alexandre Dumas and winner of the 2017 Goncourt French literature prize, stumbled upon the identity of the woman who served as the muse for the Gustave Courbet’s famous ‘Origin of the World’ painting. He was engaged in research for another book at the time of his great find.
It was while reading an 1871 letter between Alexandre Dumas’ son (also called Alexandre) and the French author George Sand that Schopp noticed the phrase revealing the identity of the muse.
Dumas was criticising Courbet for his membership of the Paris Commune (a revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28 1871 after the fall of Emperor Napoleon III), Schopp told Euronews.
“It was hatred, hatred for the people who were part of the group The Commune, (that’s) the reason why he wrote the woman’s name,” said Schopp.
The author quoted the letter sent from Dumas to Sand, in which Dumas made the remark that would reveal the muse’s identity: “How dare he paint the ‘interior’ of Constance Queniaux, an Opera dancer in Paris”.
Schopp said he didn’t believe what he was reading at first. “For about four minutes I thought I was in a strange dream, then for about ten minutes I couldn’t bring myself to tell my wife.”
But after telling her, it all began to sink in. He had discovered the identity of the woman behind a controversial painting and needed to do something about it. He decided to write a book exploring the life of Constance Queniaux, the mysterious Opera dancer, that will be published this Friday by the French publisher Phébus.
Sylvie Aubenas, an art historian and head of the Photography and Prints at the France National Library, helped Schopp with the research for the book.
“Everybody asked themselves who the muse was when the painting was acquired by the Musée d’Orsay (in Paris) in 1995 but it was impossible to find the information,” Aubenas told Euronews.
The painting was commissioned by Khalil Bey, a wealthy Ottoman-Egyptian diplomat and art collector with an intimate relationship with the Opera dancer.
“Khalil Bey wanted to keep an intimate picture of his mistress but Courbet probably chose the angle he painted Queniaux,” said Schopp. Courbet finished the painting in the summer of 1866.
The art historian said they never doubted the information Schopp discovered because Dumas’ son frequented the same social circles as Bey and had even traded some art pieces with the diplomat, so he was likely to know the identity of the muse.
“We also discovered that she owned a Courbet painting of flowers that was likely a gift for having posed for The Origin of the World,” said Aubenas, adding she’s 99% sure that Queniaux is the woman that appears in the painting.
When asked how he felt about solving the mystery behind the painting, Schopp replied that he felt a “bit sad for those who had been looking for her identity for years”.
“I find it a bit unfair but I also tell myself that every solved mystery leads to a new mystery,” he added.
For Aubenas, “there’s always something to discover in the art history world so it is very stimulating for art historians as well for the public”.
The painting gained new notoriety in recent years when it found itself at the centre of a court case. The social networking site faced trial in France for censoring the painting on its platform after it had been uploaded by a user.