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Courbet’s ‘Origin of the World’ Displayed At Orsay Museum

June 28, 1995

PARIS (AP) _ Shrouded in secrecy and scandal for more than a century, Gustave Courbet’s graphic painting of a reclining nude is on display at the Orsay Museum.

``The Origin of the World,″ is a close-up of the torso and lower body of a young woman with her legs spread to reveal her genitals, her breasts partially covered by a sheet.

Commissioned in 1866 for Khalil Bey, the Turkish ambassador to France known for his collection of paintings by Ingres, Delacroix and Courbet, it has been shown only twice before.

Bey kept the 18x21 1/2-inch oil hidden behind a green curtain and took it out only for a select group of friends. The painting’s most recent owner, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, bought it in Budapest in 1955, but had the genitals covered by a thin wooden board decorated by Andre Masson.

Lacan’s heirs gave the work to the state in lieu of death taxes.

``Courbet’s `Origin of the World’ is the most audacious example of 19th-century French painting,″ Culture Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters gathered Monday for the painting’s unveiling in the Courbet gallery on the museum’s ground level. ``It is simply grandiose.″

French officials and the museum would not reveal the painting’s value.

Experts say the work’s subject, style and composition make it one of Courbet’s greatest masterpieces _ a precursor to 20th-century hyperrealism. Museum director Francoise Chachin said it was among the museum’s most important acquisitions in the past decade.

The work is so explicit that last year, police in Clermond-Ferrand and Besancon, citing French pornography laws, had a novel by Jacques Henric featuring the painting on its cover removed from bookstore windows.

``Today, we cannot remain indifferent to a painting of such intensity,″ Douste-Blazy said.

The model was believed to be James McNeil Whistler’s Irish mistress and muse, Joanna Hifferman. By sitting for Courbet’s headless nude, she is said to have touched off a bitter quarrel between the two lovers.

The painting’s two other showings _ in 1988 in a Courbet retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and in 1991 at the Musee Courbet in the painter’s birthplace, Ornan, France _ went off without any problems.

But Orsay officials are still wary of a public outcry.

Orsay’s secretary-general, Patrick Monod, denied press reports that a special guard would be posted in front of the work, which went on display Tuesday. But in addition to the guard permanently stationed in the Courbet gallery, other guards will make frequent rounds of the area, Monod said.

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