When Gustave Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World” went on permanent display at the Musée d’Orsay in 1995, it was emerging from what must be one of the longest periods of visual quarantine in the history of art. Painted sometime in 1866, for the better part of 130 years it had been cordoned off in private collections, its existence known only to a small group of people, few of whom left any record of the work. Even Courbet, with his swashbuckling disregard for convention, seems for once to have erred on the side of caution. Neither signed nor dated, the picture was never mentioned by him in writing, and it is only on the strength of two small contemporary documents (the report of a dinner at which the painter, never more fulsome than when singing his own praises, likens his little figure to the nudes of Titian and Veronese, and a description by Maxime du Camp so slapdash that one doubts whether he had actually seen the picture with his own eyes) that we can be sure Courbet painted it at all.
Everywhere you turn in the painting’s history, you meet with the same pattern of secrecy and obfuscation.
more from the TLS here.