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.