A CHANCE discovery may have unlocked the secrets behind one of the most notorious nudes in art history after a 19th-century portrait was unearthed in a bric-a-brac shop.
'The Origin of the World' by the French realist painter Gustave Courbet has hung on the walls of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris for 18 years.
The 1866 painting of a reclining nude woman's genitals scandalised French society. There were no clues as to the model's identity or an indication that it was part of a bigger canvas.
Now, an unnamed collector believes a portrait of a woman's head gazing skywards that he picked up on the cheap is a missing part of the work, and the world's leading Courbet expert agrees.
The buyer said he had an intuition that the painting he had bargained down to €1,400 was more important than the humble surroundings he found it in made out, according to French magazine 'Paris Match'. He became increasingly convinced that it was a Courbet.
Jean-Jacques Fernier, of the Courbet Institute, was initially sceptical when "John" brought him the work. But two years of tests and analysis of the canvas and its brushwork have left him convinced that 'Origin' had been cut into pieces. He was able to align the paintings through grooves in the frame.
The magazine suggests that the portrait could be worth as much as €40m, while the experts pointed out there were probably more parts of the canvas in existence.
After scrutinising the head, experts believe the model for 'Origin' was Jo Hifferman, the Irish mistress of James Whistler, who also had an affair with Courbet. The artist had painted her several times, including in 'Portrait of Jo' and 'Sleep' – where she is entwined with another woman on a bed.
The addition of the head means "it loses some of its mystery and some of its charm", Mr Fernier conceded.
'Origin' vanished after the Second World War before it ended up in the Musée d'Orsay in 1995. (© Independent News Service)