Exposed! How a ballet dancer and a Realist artist created the world

L'Origine du mondeFrom the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager archives and the recent exhibition Sigmund Freud, From Seeing to Listening at the Museum of the History and Art of Judaism in Paris: Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du monde” (The Creation of the World), 1866. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. © Paris, musée d’Orsay.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — A sort of anthropological elaboration on his discovery that the model for Gustave Courbet’s alternately maligned and celebrated 1866 painting “L’origine du monde” (most recently in the news when the luddites at Facebook tried to ban it; okay to use us to recruit terrorists, but art is too dangerous) was the Paris Opera Ballet dancer Constance Quéniaux — the author uses her trajectory as a window into the world of the late 19th-century Parisiennne courtesan — Claude Schopp’s “L’origine du monde: Vie du modèle,” published by Phébus, should be required reading in schools of journalism, for both its positive demonstration that investigative journalism relies as much on scrupulous research as vigorous legwork and its negative example of how to pad out (or as the French say, embroider) a story. Given that Schopp has singularly taken the mystery out of a major work of art that managed to retain it for 150 years, the achievement is dubious.

It’s easy to forget, in this era of “gotchya” journalism, the example set for my generation of Woodstein wannabes by the Washington Post reporters who brought a president down. They did this not by digging in the White House trash-cans but because a cops reporter named Bob Woodward had his ears perked and was smart enough to recognize the national implications of a local hotel break-in when it came up on the municipal court docket.

Claude Schopp’s solving of a mystery which has intrigued art aficionados since the work Anglophones know as “The Creation of the World” was created in 1866 came in an even more staid setting, the musty research rooms of the French National Library on the Seine. And it came because Schopp is what the late Joseph H. Mazo, one of my mentors, used to call (as in I’m looking for) “an anal copy editor.”

The leading living expert on Alexander Dumas Jr., Schopp was preparing a book on the correspondence of the latter with George Sand, the good woman behind at least four great men of 19th-century European arts and letters (Chopin, Dumas senior and junior, and Flaubert). He’d already revealed, in “Alexander Dumas, Jr. — the anti-Oedipus” (Phébus 2017) how the son had rescued a batch of love letters between the woman he referred to as “Mom” and Chopin (while chasing after his own elusive mistress in an obscure Slavic border town), subsequently burned by Sand. That book also proved that Schopp does not have his head buried in the past; the revelation of a screed Dumas Junior had written supporting a law (still on the books at least as recently as 1872) which gave a man the right to kill his unfaithful spouse helps explain what some see as the retrograde status of women in contemporary France; they’ve had a long way to come, Baby. (Junior, who as the author of “Camille” might have been expected to have more sympathy for women, terminated his piece with “Kill her!”)

So it’s no surprise that this reactionary, no friend of the Paris Commune (organized by Parisians who refused Versailles’s surrender to the Prussians), would pen a report for the Rouen News on June 6, 1871 lambasting its most prominent artistic avatar: Gustave Courbet, who had famously brought down the Vendome column (as being a symbol of Versailles) and was subsequently ruined when he was forced to pay for its restoration.

“What kind of fabulous copulation of a slug and a peacock,” Dumas asked, “what procreative antitheses, what sebaceous oozing could have possibly generated, for instance, this thing known as Gustave Courbet? Under what blister, with the help of what compost, as the result of what mixture of wine, beer, and corrosive mucus and flatulent edema could this pilose, loud gourd, this aesthetic stomach, this incarnation of the imbecile and impotent Me have sprouted?”

origine du monde queniau smallFrom the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager archives: Mlle Constance Quéniaux par Disdéri, BnF, département des Estampes et de la Photographie.

It was while examining the transcription of Dumas Junior’s response to the letter “Mom” must have subsequently written him defending Courbet (as Dumas’s letter suggests; the Sand letter to which he’s presumably responding is lost) that Claude “Eagle-Eye” Schopp stumbled on the identify of the model for “L’origine du Monde”:

“There’s no excuse for Courbet — this is why I piled it on,” Dumas explains to Sand. “When one has his talent which, without being exceptional, is remarkable and interesting, one doesn’t have the right to be so proud, so insolent, and so cowardly — not to mention that one simply does not paint with such a delicate and sonorous paintbrush the *interview* (emphasis added) of Mademoiselle Quéniaux of the Paris Opera Ballet, for the Turk who dwelled there from time to time, above all in such an in-your-face, natural manner, not to mention painting two women passing as men,” the latter a reference to the painter’s “Sleep,” in which two luxuriant odalisques cuddle in a nap. “All this is ignoble…. Compared to this I’ll forgive him for toppling the Vendome column and suppressing God, who must be laughing like a little fool.”

Struck by not just the senselessness but the epoch and language incongruity of the English word “interview” in a letter from 1871, Schopp asked to examine the original manuscript in the Library’s collection, and discovered that the handwritten word was clearly not ‘interview’ but *intérieure* — the word is underlined, and easily legible even in the reduced reproduction in the book, including that accent over the first e.

For a rigorous scholar like Schopp, though, this wasn’t good enough, so he then set about looking for connections between the four principals — Courbet, Quéniaux, Dumas Junior, and the evident Turk in question, the Ottoman ambassador and playboy Khalil Bey, who had been the dancer’s lover. Thus it was that he uncovered that the painting had been a vanity commission for the painter from “the Turk” — paint my mistress — and who subsequently kept it hidden behind a curtain in his salon, with only the select privileged with an occasional viewing. (Schopp also found accounts from some of these contemporary witnesses.) The Dumas-Bey and Dumas-Quéniaux connections — which would explain how the writer had access to this intimate knowledge — are more sketchy; Dumas’s lover was Quéniaux’s best friend, and the writer and the ambassador had at different points both bought at auction Delacroix’s 1839 painting, “La Tasse dans la maison des fous,” which inspired Baudelaire to write (and which I know because the poem illustrates the painting’s or a drawing of its appearance in a 1905 auction catalogue in my own possession):

Le poète au cachot, débraillé, maladif,
Roulant un manuscrit sous son pied convulsif,
Measure d’un regard que la terreur enflamme
L’escalier de vertige où s’abîme son âme.

(The poet in solitary confinement, slovenly, darkly pensive
Rolling a manuscript under his foot so convulsive
Realizing with a regard that the terror like fire to coal
is consuming the vertiginous stairwell roughing up his soul.)

(Click here to read more of the poem, in French and in English translation.)

So far so good but still not enough to justify a whole book, so Schopp pads it out with a portrait of the world of the demoiselles that is not particularly original for anyone who’s read Balzac or Zola, except in a conclusion where he adduces Quéniaux as the proof that not all courtisans ended up like Zola’s Nana or Dumas Junior’s Camille, dying young and consumptive after destroying or being deserted by everyone around them. And everything: Schopp goes into much — too much — detail listing all the beautiful things with which the retired dancer went on to surround herself in homes in Normandy and on the rue Royale, not far from the Church de la Madeline. His detailing of her good works — in charity — is more justified, until you get to the part where he supposes, without any evidence, where all this money came from, namely from being a prostitute, or mistress if you prefer. And it doesn’t stop there; he goes so far as to make the generalizing statement that the line between dancer and hooker — or mistress — was fine at the time, the slippery slope of retirement leading from one to the other. I guess Claude Schopp never heard of Marie Taglioni, the Paris Opera Ballet dancer and school founder who was the first to dance on point artistically, and who was still giving classes to English girls when she died.

The other padding is more onerous, consisting of quoting two pages-worth’s (on multiple occasions) of passages from contemporary gossip pages on theater parties or benefits just because Quéniaux makes an appearance, or recurring sequences on an old fogey of an operetta writer whose (platonic) harem included her and, worse, naming every single witness, including their profession and address, who signed every single birth or death certificate of even the most peripheral figures to the tale. It’s as if the very talent which lead Schopp to the discovery — scholarly meticulousness — took over the project, with the means getting confused for the end.

But there’s a larger problem here, and it’s the same one I have with the original painting’s current exhibition at the Museum of Jewish History and Art in the Marais in the (re)context(ualizing) of an exhibition on Sigmund Freud.

The great thing about art is its mystery, the room it leaves for the viewer to collaborate in constructing its meaning. That viewer might be a fancy-schmancy critic like me, or it might be the cowgirl I once overheard telling her cowboy and his friend, on coming upon a Charles Russell painting of two young Indians accompanied by an older women in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, “Reminds me of our first date; mom insisted on chaperoning us.” In creating the painting whose English title is “Creation of the World,” Courbet offered his viewers the greatest source of mystery in the world, open to multiple interpretations, from the most basic (or base) to the most wondrous. (If he’d wanted it to be a portrait, he wouldn’t have cut her head off.) He invited them to participate in creating his grand oeuvre’s meaning. Schopp has now killed those infinite possibilities by revealing, “It was Constance Quéniaux.” (As the Jewish Museum has done by latching the painting onto Freud, as if his interpretation of the world and juicing up of male complexes around the vagina hasn’t already screwed us up enough.) I’m also reminded of what Andre Malraux said about Degas’s nudes (in the series of lectures that became “The Psychology of Art”), that the subject is not the model but color.

In other words: It’s about the art, stupid. Or to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A work of art is a work of art is a work of art.

In the case of Schopp and his publisher, It’s almost as if they just had to take away the mystery and vulgarize it, in both senses of that term. (In French, ‘vulgarize’ means ‘popularize.’) As if it’s not bad enough that a publisher with such an impressively esoteric list (except for the Dumases, I haven’t heard of any of its authors) and a scholar whose previous work, the Dumas Junior biography, operated on a much higher level, plunging into the artistic processes and relationship of father and son, could sink no low, they’ve compounded the vulgarity by the book’s cover. (See illustration.) When I first visited Paris in 2000, I loved how, unlike the cultural fathers and mothers of New York, the French had no compunction about revealing naked bodies in art, in sculpture gardens, and in performance. (No ‘Family Unfriendly’ warnings here.) So why, instead of sticking to that high standard in their cover illustration, have these representatives of French intellectuals sunk to the low level of Facebook, which has infamously banned Courbet’s oeuvre?

Family Reunion: George Sand reviews “Lucretia Borgia” for Victor Hugo

lucrece borgia comedie francaise Christophe Raynaud de Lage oneElsa Lepoivre and the Comédie-Française in Victor Hugo’s “Lucretia Borgia.” Christophe Raynaud photo courtesy Service Presse, the Comédie-Française.

Correspondence between George Sand & Victor Hugo
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Through April 1, 2019 at its salle Richelieu in Paris, the Comédie-Française is reprising Victor Hugo’s 1833 “Lucretia Borgia,” with Elsa Lepoivre, Gaël Kamilindi, and the troupe’s director Eric Ruf — who also designed the scenery — performing the principal roles, under the direction of Denis Podalydès, with choreography by Kaori Ito. When the play was reprised in early 1870 at the Theatre Porte-Saint-Martin, the Great Man’s Paris colleagues tasked George Sand with sending the author, exiled for 18 years in the Channel Islands, a personal account of the play’s triumphal return to the Paris stage. (Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)

George Sand to Victor Hugo:

My great friend, I’ve just come from “Lucrèce Borgia,” my heart full of emotion and joy. I’m still thinking of all the poignant scenes, all the charming and devastating words, Alphonse d’Este’s bitter smile, Gennaro’s harrowing arrest, Lucretia’s maternal scream; my ears are still ringing with the acclamations of the packed audience shouting “Long live Victor Hugo!,” imploring you as if you could actually heed its call, as if you could hear it.

One can’t say, when it comes to an already consecrated work like “Lucretia Borgia,” “The play was a huge success,” but I’ll say it anyway: You have scored a magnificent triumph. Your friends at [the journal] Rappel — who are also my friends — asked if I would be the first to inform you of this triumph. I do believe I would like to be! Let this letter, therefore, bring you news of this beautiful evening.

This evening reminded me of another, no less beautiful. You probably were not aware that I was there at the opening night of “Lucretia Borgia” — 37 years ago to the day, they tell me.

I remember that I was seated in the balcony, as it happens sitting next to Bocage — the first time I saw him. We were, he and I, strangers to each other; shared enthusiasm made us friends. We applauded together; together we proclaimed, “Isn’t it wonderful?!” During the intermissions, we could not stop ourselves from speaking, from gushing, from reciprocally re-playing this scene or that scene.

Certain minds share a literary conviction and passion that immediately makes them part of the same soul and imbues them with a fraternity in art. When the play ended, when the curtain came down with the tragic cry “I am your mother!,” our hands immediately sought each other out. And they remained entwined up and until the death of that grand artist, that dear friend.

And now I’ve found “Lucretia Borgia” just as I left her 37 years ago. The play has not aged one day; no folds, no wrinkles. Its lovely form, as clear and firm as Paros marble, has remained absolutely intact and pure.

On top of this, here you have touched, here you have expressed with your incomparable magic the emotion that strikes us the most in the guts; you have incarnated and realized “the mother.” It’s as eternal as the heart.

“Lucretia Borgia” just might be the most powerful and high-minded of all your plays. If “Ruy Blas” is more happy and glittering, the idea behind “Lucretia Borgia” is the more tragically pathetic, the more striking, and the more profoundly human.

What I admire above all is the daring simplicity on which the robust foundations of the three principal situations are constructed. Classical theater proceeded with this same calm and strong vast scope.

Three acts, three scenes, all that is needed to pose, to bind, and to then unravel this surprising sequence of actions:

The mother insulted in the presence of the son;

The son poisoned by the mother;

The mother punished and killed by the son.

This superb trilogy had to issue from one single effort, like a grouping of bronze sculptures. And so it did, no? I even recall how you did it.

I recall under what conditions and in what circumstances “Lucretia Borgia” was, in a certain manner, improvised, from its beginnings in 1833.

lucrece borgia comedie francaise Christophe Raynaud de Lage twoElsa Lepoivre and the Comédie-Française in Victor Hugo’s “Lucretia Borgia.” Christophe Raynaud photo courtesy Service Presse, the Comédie-Française.

The Théâtre-Française presented, at the end of 1832, the first and only performance of “Le Roi s’amuse.” This performance was a rough battle, progressing and concluding amongst a storm of catcalls and a storm of booing and bravoing. In the subsequent performances, which would triumph — the boos or the bravos? A big question, and an important test for the author….

But there were no subsequent performances.

The day after the opening night, “Le Roi s’amuse” was banned by “by proclamation,” and is still waiting, I believe, for its second performance. At the same time that “Rigoletto” continues to play day after day.

This brutal confiscation was a great wrong to the poet. It must have been for you, my friend, a cruel moment of anger and pain.

However…. At the same time, Harel, the director of the Porte-Saint-Martin, came to ask you for a play for his theater and for Mademoiselle George. The catch was that this play, he needed it right away, and “Lucretia Borgia” only existed in your head — the writing had yet to begin.

No matter! You as well, you wanted your revenge. You told yourself what you’ve never ceased telling the public since, in the preface to “Lucretia Borgia” itself:

“To give birth to a new play, six weeks after the banned play, is another way of reading the riot act to the government. Another way to show that it’s the one who is being penalized. A way to prove to it that art and liberty can sprout up in one solitary night under the very foot that maladroitly tries to crush them.”

You went to work right away. In six weeks, your new play was finished, learned, rehearsed, performed. And on February 2, 1933 — two months after the war over “Le Roi s’amuse” — the opening night of “Lucretia Borgia” was the most smashing victory of your dramatic career.

As easy as pie, this work was born a finished masterpiece, solid, indestructible and eternally durable. And it was applauded last night like it was applauded 40 years ago, like it will be applauded 40 years from now and for eternity.

The effect, huge from the first act, grew from scene to scene until it exploded in the final act.

Here’s what’s incredible: This final act, we already know what’s going to happen, we know it by heart, we expect the entry of the monks, we expect the appearance of Lucretia Borgia, we expect the knife being thrust by Gennaro.

And yet…i. We’re still taken aback, terrified, our breath taken away, just as if we didn’t already know what was going to happen; the first strains of “De Profundis,” interrupting the saloon song, send a shudder through our veins, we hope that Lucretia Borgia will be forgiven by her son, we pray that Gennaro won’t slay his mother. But no, you’re intractable, inflexible master; the crime must be expiated, the blind matricide must punish and avenge all these crimes, they also perhaps blind.

The play was admirably mounted and performed in this theater where it is at home.

Madame Laurent was really superb as Lucretia. I don’t under-rate Madame George’s beauty, force, and pedigree; but I must confess that her talent only moves me when the situation does. It seems that Marie Laurent can make me cry all by herself. She had, like Madame George, in the fist act, that horrible scream of a wounded lioness: “Enough! Enough!” But in the final act, dragging herself at Gennaro’s feet, she’s so humble, so tender, so supplicating, she’s so afraid, not of being killed, but of being killed by her son, that every heart in the theater melts like hers and with hers. No one dares applaud, no one dares move, everyone holds their breath. And then the entire audience rises to call for her and acclaim her at the same time as they do you.

You’ve never had an Alphonse d’Est as real and as handsome as Mélingue. He’s a Bonington, or, even better, a living Titien. One can’t imagine someone more princely, more like an Italian prince, more like a prince of the 16th century. He’s simultaneously ferocious and refined. He prepares, he conceives, and he savors his vengeance in an artistic fashion, with as much elegance as cruelty. We look on terror-stricken as he claws at the velour scenery like a magnificent royal tiger.

Taillade has just the tragic and fatal figure called for by Gennaro. He strikes exactly the right tones of lofty and ferocious bitterness, in the scene where Gennaro is both executioner and judge.

Brésil, admirably costumed in a fake hidalgo, has great allure as the Mephisto-like personage of Gubetta.

The five young lords — all artists of real value, lead by Charles Lemaitre, exhibiting pride in performing — look as if they might have stepped out of a painting by Giorgione or Bonifazio.

The direction is of an exactitude, that is to say a richness which revives more than anyone could ever wish all the splendor of the Italian Renaissance. Monsieur Raphael Félix has rendered you not just royally but artistically.

However — and he won’t fault me for telling you so — there’s someone who has celebrated you even better than him: the public, or rather, the people.

What an ovation for your name and for your play!

I was so happy and elated for you after this just and legitimate ovation. You deserve it 100 times over, my dear great friend. It’s not my intention here to sing the praises of your power and your ingenuity, but one can at least thank you for being the fine artisan and indefatigable worker that you are.

To think of what you had already accomplished in 1833! You renewed the art of the ode; you had, in the preface to “Cromwell,” penned the manifesto that served as the blueprint for the dramatic revolution; you were the first to reveal the Orient in “Les Orientales” and the Middle Ages in “Notre-Dame de Paris.”

And, since, what works and what major works! What ideas stirred up, what forms invented! What efforts, what audacities and discoveries!

And you don’t let up! You were aware yesterday in Guernesey that “Lucretia Borgia” was being reprised today in Paris, you had calmly and peacefully discussed the chances of this performance, then at 10 p.m., at the very moment that the entire audience was acclaiming Mélingue and Madame Laurent after the first act, you went to bed so that you could get up as usual at the break of dawn, and they tell me that at the very moment that I’m finishing up this letter, you are illuminating your lamp, as you resume tranquilly working on your latest creation.

George Sand

hugo house views of guernseyThomas Singleton, “Views of Guernesey,” circa 1870. Set of 12 prints: Eight large albumen prints mounted on cards; four unframed prints. Various dimensions, from 13 x 20 cm. to 27.5 x 39 cm. Part of Christie’s 2012 Collection Hugo sale in Paris. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012. To read more about the Collection Hugo sale — and what it revealed about the vast Hugo legacy — on the Arts Voyager please click here.

Victor Hugo to George Sand:

Hauteville-House, February 8, 1870

Thanks to you, I was there at this performance. Through your admirable style, I saw it all: the theater, the play, the dazzle of the show, the magnificent space, these powerful and tragic actors inspiring the shudders of the crowd, all those riveted heads, this people moved, and you, the embodiment of glory, applauding.

For 20 years I have lived under quarantine. The saviors of property have confiscated my property. The coup d’état has sequestered my repertory. My plague-infected plays are quarantined; the black flag hangs over me. Three years ago, they let “Hernani” out of jail only to send it back as quickly as possible, the public incapable to mount enough hate for this brigand. Now it’s “Lucretia Borgia”‘s turn. She’s free. But she’s already being denounced; she’s highly-suspected of being contagious. How long will she remain at liberty?

You’ve just given her a perpetual get-out-of-jail free card. You are the great woman of our century, a noble soul for everyone, a kind of living posterity, and you have the right to proclaim. I thank you.

Your magnificent letter could not have been more timely. My solitude is often strongly insulted; they say whatever they like about me; I’m someone who prefers remaining silent. Allowing oneself to be calumnied is a strength. For that matter, it’s natural that the Empire defend itself by any means possible. It’s my target, and I’m its target. From over there are sent many projectiles against me which, given that they need to traverse the sea, have, it’s true, a big chance of falling in the water. Whatever they may be, they only serve to affirm my thick skin, the outrage only hardens me in my certitude and in my will, I smile at their insults; but, in the face of sympathy, in the face of adhesion, in the face of friendship, in the face of the energetic and tender cordiality of the people, confronted with the applause of a city like Paris and the approbation of a woman like George Sand, this solid and pensive old fogey feels his heart melt. They love me just a little bit after all!

hugo one portraitsFrom a set of four salt prints after photographs taken in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands in which the poet took refuge in 1852 before moving to Guernesey in 1855: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” The prints were part of Christie’s 2012 Collection Hugo sale in Paris. Copyright and courtesy Christie’s images Ltd. 2012.

At the same time that “Lucretia Borgia” gets out of jail, my son Charles goes back in. C’est la vie. One must accept these things.

You, in your life, out of so many throes which have tested you, you would forge light. In the future you will guard the august aureole of the woman who protected Women. Your entire oeuvre is a battle; and that which is a battle in the present is a victory in the future. He who is with progress is with certitude. What touches us when we read you is the sublimeness of your heart. You spend it all on thought, on philosophy, on wisdom, on reason, on enthusiasm. And what a powerful writer you are! I will soon have something to celebrate, because you will soon have a success. I am aware that one of your plays is being rehearsed.

I’m happy every time that we exchange letters; my reverie has need of these sparks of light that you send me, and I thank you from the depths of my heart for having taken the time to turn towards me from the heights of this summit where you reside, great spirit.

My illustrated friend, I bow before you.

Victor Hugo

Excerpted from “Pendant Exil, 1852-1870,” Nelson, Editeurs, Paris. Victor Hugo returned to France on August 31, 1870, after the collapse of the empire of Napoleon III.