The Musée d’Orsay houses a work that still shocks visitors, a painting that united one of the 19th century’s most controversial painters with one of its most dissolute gentlemen.
PARIS – Let us begin with “The Origin of the World,” one of history’s most scandalous paintings, then turn to the origins—and the world—of the man who commissioned it.
The subject of the canvas, limned in arresting detail, is a woman’s torso as she lies in bed with a sheet pulled upward to reveal one breast and her legs spread, exposing her vulva, apparently awaiting her lover. We do not see her face, arms, or her legs below the thigh. The singular focus is her sex. Even in these jaded times, as one looks at the painting in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris the effect is so graphic, indeed pornographic, that it surprises many visitors.
How much more shocking must it have been 150 years ago in the renowned art collection of a Muslim pasha? Indeed, in his Paris apartments he kept the painting behind a curtain in the cabinet de toilette, but everyone who knew him knew of it. Such a room in those days was for freshening up one’s look, not a closet for a toilet. Le tout Paris frequented his opulent soirées, which were renowned for fine dining, great wines, beautiful women, and high-stakes gambling, and if anyone asked to see the canvas he would, with a bit of ceremony, draw back the curtains.
Gossip was rampant about Khalil Bey, as the collector was known even after the Sublime Porte added the honorific “pasha” to his name, and for years he encouraged the notoriety. He was the most famous (or infamous) Turk in Paris, the most infamous (or famous) Parisian in Istanbul.
Still, as Bertrand Tillier, a professor at the Sorbonne, points out in his biography Khalil Bey: Parisien de Stamboul (available only in French at the moment), this Ottoman diplomat’s story is not so much about painting or pornography as about a certain idea of cosmopolitan modernity.
Progressives from the Muslim world of the 19th century, largely the Ottoman world, often struggled against the weight of Islamic conservatism in their homeland—only to find themselves caricatured by the atavistic, prurient, orientalist prejudices of the Europeans.
A century and a half after the heyday of Khalil Bey on the boulevards of Paris, that tension is still with us.
The man who painted l’Origine du Monde was Gustave Courbet, a devoted Realist and a dilettante anarchist who had a flair for scandals both artistic and political. Courbet made his reputation in the late 1840s and 1850s by painting the poor as they really appeared, whether breaking stones or attending funerals. His subjects, with what seemed the weight of the world behind their eyes, were painted using the techniques of the Dutch old masters on a scale previously reserved by the French establishment for mythological, religious, and historical themes. Courbet’s refutation of the accepted artistic norms quickly earned him the kind of opprobrium necessary for artists who want to be known as visionaries.
In the mid-19th century, painters’ careers were made or broken in Paris each year by The Salon, where hundreds of works were selected out of thousands submitted. People from every stratum came to ogle and critique. The French state rewarded its favored artists with medals and money. Courbet sometimes won medals, and sometimes a certain calculated infamy.
In 1864, Courbet—by then quite a celebrity—submitted a painting of two nude women and even considered giving it the title of a famous scene from Greek mythology: “Venus in Jealous Pursuit of Psyche.” But the work was conspicuous mainly for its sapphic eroticism. One woman appeared to hunger after the other in a bed among rumpled sheets that suggested to any worldly man of the times the ambience of a bordello. The Salon rejected the painting for supposed immorality, thus making it instantly and hugely famous among collectors in Paris.
One of these was Khalil Bey, but by the time he made an offer to Courbet, “Venus and Psyche” already had been sold, and the new owner refused to part with it.
Khalil Bey was hugely disappointed. Then again, he was hugely rich. And Courbet had an idea that he thought might appeal to a man of such discernment and tastes—which brings us to the question of what the Ottoman’s predilections really were, and what was behind them.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign through Egypt and Syria, deploying scholars as well as soldiers at the end of the 18th century, that had opened the region to the world, and the world to it. In the 1820s, Muhammad Ali sent delegations and gifts to France, including a giraffe—a beast rarely if ever before seen in Europe—that was walked from Marseille to Paris. It became for a while a fashion sensation, with giraffe motifs appearing on fabrics, wallpaper, even as hair-dos. A young imam’s study of French thinking and culture at the time, L’Or de Paris, (The Gold of Paris), reads like it was written by someone from another planet, but the lessons learned were soon applied in Egyptian schools, where French became the language of the educated classes well into the middle of the 20th century.
As teenagers, Khalil Bey and his brothers were sent to the Egyptian military academy in Paris to learn not only the arts of modern warfare, but in his case the languages and skills of contemporary diplomacy. His uncle wanted a polyglot man of the world to represent Egypt, and in Khalil Bey that is exactly what he got.
After Muhammad Ali’s death in 1849, his successor tried to revert to more traditional Ottoman rule, but then as luck (or conspiracy) would have it, two of his slaves murdered him. By 1855, Egyptian collaboration with Europe was once again strong and young Khalil Bey was dispatched to oversee Cairo’s exhibits at the spectacular Universal Exposition in Paris, where so many wonders of the world were on display that the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire discerned what he called the “divine grace of cosmopolitanism”—an openness to all things bizarre and beautiful.
Khalil Bey biographer Tillier concludes that the experience of the exposition played a key role converting him “to the religion of cosmopolitanism” that would guide his diplomatic career and his aesthetic tastes between the East and the West.
The diplomatic assignments Khalil Bey landed over the next few years would have been difficult for any Ottoman envoy. The Crimean War, in which France and Britain had joined with the Ottomans to fight the Russian Czar’s expanding presence had ended with a weak victory over Moscow and a treaty in 1856 that opened the way for Ottoman subjects to assert their national independence.
Khalil Bey was first assigned to Athens, where the Greeks had—and have to this day—long and passionate memories of their struggle to throw off Turkish domination. Then he was sent to St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, to do what he could to protect Ottoman interests at a time when Czar Alexander II was threatening British interests in Central Asia and India in what Rudyard Kipling called “The Great Game,” while threatening Austria and promoting Slavic demands in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. (This may sound rather familiar to readers following Vladimir Putin’s regional ambitions today.)
Then suddenly in the summer of 1865, Khalil Bey quit his post in St. Petersburg and moved to Paris, not as an official envoy, but as a private citizen. He may have gone there to be treated for syphilis contracted in Russia (he greatly admired the fair-skinned women of the Caucasus). Or he may have had some secret assignment from Cairo or Istanbul. While there, he also sheltered Turkish dissidents. But there is no doubt that very quickly the portly 34-year-old Khalil Bey, distinguished by a round face and small, watery eyes often hidden behind dark blue lenses, became known as one of the most extravagant figures in an extravagant city.
Khalil Bey was a collector of friends, of lovers and mistresses, of art, and of phenomenal gambling debts—all of which have been attributed to him as examples of some unbecoming “Oriental” excess. But that would only make sense if one ignores the tenor of the times. This was the height of the Second Empire under Napoleon III, who had come to power with the financial support of Harriet Howard, a famous British courtesan, and whose legendary sexual appetite was assuaged by innumerable mistresses and elite prostitutes.
As Petra ten-Doesschate Chu wrote some years ago in Art Journal, the Emperor “was hardly the man to take a moral stand against high- or even middle-class prostitution, the more so as his nation, and particularly his capital, owed so much of its reputation to its vie galante, the visible symbol of the financial well-being of the imperial regime.”
High society in Paris was ripe with uneasy contradictions and hypocrisies that Courbet intended to expose, and Khalil Bey looked to exploit as well as experience. Which brings us back to “The Origin of the World.”
Khalil Bey had already begun to amass an impressive collection of paintings by the finest artists in France, including Delacroix, Corot and Ingres (“Le Bain Turc”), when he approached Courbet about the Venus and Psyche canvas.
Courbet’s counter-offer was to propose a new painting of two women, their bodies intertwined, slipping into what appears to be post-coital sleep. Khalil Bey was persuaded when he heard the offer and later when he saw the canvas, which now hangs in the Petit Palais museum in Paris and has had various titles, including “Sleep,” “Two Women,” and “Indolence and Lust.” But according to Tillier, Khalil Bey was put off by the price of 20,000 francs, which Courbet knew was a phenomenal sum. So the painter offered to add a canvas that would be “impossible to name, to describe, to display,” as Tillier puts it.
Every few years, scholars believe they have discovered the face of the woman whose vulva is portrayed with such Realist attention. In 2013, a portrait was found of Courbet’s mistress Joanna Hiffernan and lengthy articles appeared explaining the canvas had once been of her entire body, but cut into pieces. The Musée d’Orsay rejected that analysis out of hand: “‘The Origin of the World has not lost its head,” declared the curators.
Then, last September, a researcher examining the correspondence between the novelist George Sand and the younger Alexandre Dumas concluded that one of their references to Courbet painting the most delicate parts of Constance Quéniaux proved she must be the model for “Origin.” Quéniaux was a dancer at the Opéra and an occasional mistress of Khalil Bey who also brought him luck, he thought, when he was gambling.
The conventional end to the Khalil Bey story is that he ran up such debts betting on cards and horses that in 1868 he was forced to sell everything, and after that his life was one long slide into syphilitic oblivion. But that simply wasn’t the case.
Whatever Khalil Bey’s motive for leaving the diplomatic corps in the summer of 1865 and moving to Paris, he returned to diplomacy in 1869 and was assigned to Vienna, another difficult post for an Ottoman. He was also named for a time as the foreign minister of the Sublime Porte. And perhaps most interesting of all, in 1872 he married a princess who would stand out even today as a model of self-assured independence. Nazli Fazyl was 22 years younger than Khalil Bey, but had a reputation as a very westernized woman, who declined to wear the veil—and posed without it for photographers. She spoke several languages, was an accomplished musician, and followed politics closely, even criticizing the sultan. She had a salon open to all the statesmen and members of the diplomatic corps in Istanbul. When she and Khalil Bey were married, they appeared in public arm in arm, scandalizing Ottoman conservatives.
Khalil Bey returned to Paris as envoy in 1877, but by then was suffering the later stages of syphilis. He died in 1879 at the age of 48.
Given the totality of Khalil Bey’s life, and the short time he spent collecting art, from 1865 to 1868, one is tempted to say it was partly for pleasure, partly for investment that he had acquired most of his inventory. He had tasted Paris, with all it had to give, and took with him what he wanted to remember.
Everything else, he sold at auction, but “The Origin of the World” was not in the catalogue. It passed from one private collector to another in Hungary and France and was long thought lost, until curators for the exhibit “Courbet Reconsidered” persuaded its owner to let it be revealed in 1988 at the Brooklyn Museum. The French state acquired it for the Musée d’Orsay in 1995.
POST SCRIPT: On New Year’s Day 2019, I decided to pay another visit to the Musée d’Orsay to see how the crowds were reacting to “The Origin of the World.” But it wasn’t there. The museum staff told me it had gone out on loan to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme for a special exhibit, “From Looking to Listening,” about Sigmund Freud.