Masterpiece featuring Irish model worth €35m

An amateur art lover walked into a Paris store, managed to knock €200 off the sale price for €1,200, and may have walked away with a €35m masterpiece featuring an Irish model.

The remarkable find of the previously unknown “head” of Gustave Courbet’s most notorious work, ‘The Origin of the World’, has rocked the art world and estimates put the find as worth at least €35m.

The new owner, who is as yet unnamed, is an amateur art lover who could not belive his luck after finding the canvas tucked away between some old pieces of furniture.

Two years after haggling down the asking price for the almost lifesize lost 19th century masterpiece, the 1866 painting has passed numerous tests and been authenticated by the leading Courbet expert Jean-Jacques Fernier.

The work depicted a full female body based on Irish model Joanna Hiffernan, who was Courbet’s lover.


Beyond the fact that her parents were Irish, little appears to be known of where exactly Hiffernan (or Heffernan) was born or when she died, but those years are widely thought to be 1843-1903.

Her origin was rather modest, but her appearance and personality made her friends call her ‘La Belle Irlandaise’.

In her pose Hiffernan’s brunette head gazes skyward with a look of rapture.

‘The Origin of the World’ was only recently discovered to have been a larger art piece than once thought and the owner now wants to reunite the head with the body.

The lower half hangs in the Musée d’Orsay,

The artist previously sold the unsigned piece to a collector of erotic art which was later pillaged in the war.

Courbet is believed to have wanted to save his lover from controversy, as the full work depicted her genitalia, so severed the head from the body.

Picture: The ‘head’ of Gustave Courbet’s most notorious work, ‘The Origin of the World’, which is estimated to be worth €35m but which an amateur art lover bought from a Paris store for about €1,200. The subject is Joanna Hiffernan, who her friends called ‘La Belle Irlandaise’.

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