At the time Courbet was working on the painting his favourite model was a young woman, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as Jo. Her lover at the time was the American painter James Whistler, a friend of Courbet.
Courbet did another painting in 1866, La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo), whose model was Hiffernan. During his whole career, Courbet did four portraits of Hiffernan. She was probably the model for L'Origine du monde, which might explain Courbet's and Whistler's brutal separation a short while later. Whistler then returned to London. In spite of Hiffernan's red hair contrasting with the darker pubic hair of L'Origine du monde, the hypothesis that Hiffernan was the model for it continues. In her RED: A Natural History of the Redhead Jacky Colliss Harvey puts forward the idea that the woman's body-hair suggests a more obvious candidate might be the brunette painted with Hiffernan in Courbet's Le Sommeil; and that the identification with Hiffernan has been greatly influenced by the eroticised and sexualised image of the female redhead.
In February 2013, Paris Match reported that Courbet expert Jean-Jacques Fernier had authenticated a painting of a young woman's head and shoulders as the upper section of L'Origine du monde which according to some was severed from the original work. Fernier has stated that because of the conclusions reached after two years of analysis, the head will be added to the next edition of the Courbet catalogue raisonné. The Musée d'Orsay has indicated that L'Origine du monde was not part of a larger work.
The Daily Telegraph reported that "experts at the [French] art research centre CARAA (Centre d'Analyses et de Recherche en Art et Archéologie) were able to align the two paintings via grooves made by the original wooden frame and lines in the canvas itself, whose grain matched." According to CARAA, it performed pigment analyses which were identified as classical pigments of the 2nd half of the 19th century. No other conclusions were reported by the CARAA. The claim reported by Paris Match was characterized as dubious by Le Monde art critic Philippe Dagen, indicating differences in style, and that canvas-similarities could be caused by buying from the same shop.
The commission for L'Origine du monde is believed to have come from Khalil Bey, an Ottoman diplomat, former ambassador of the Ottoman Empire in Athens and Saint Petersburg who had just moved to Paris. Sainte-Beuve introduced him to Courbet and he ordered a painting to add to his personal collection of erotic pictures, which already included Le Bain turc (The Turkish Bath) from Ingres and another painting by Courbet, Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers), for which it is supposed that Hiffernan was one of the models.
After Khalil-Bey's finances were ruined by gambling, the painting subsequently passed through a series of private collections. It was first bought during the sale of the Khalil-Bey collection in 1868, by antique dealer Antoine de la Narde. Edmond de Goncourt hit upon it in an antique shop in 1889, hidden behind a wooden pane decorated with the painting of a castle or a church in a snowy landscape. According to Robert Fernier, who published two volumes of the Courbet catalogue raisonné and founded the Musée Courbet, Hungarian collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany bought it at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1910 and took it with him to Budapest. Towards the end of the Second World War, the painting was looted by Soviet troops but ransomed by Hatvany who, when he emigrated, was allowed to take only one art work with him, and he took L'Origine to Paris.
In 1955 L'Origine du monde was sold at auction for 1.5 million francs. Its new owner was the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Together with his wife, actress Sylvia Bataille, he installed it in their country house in Guitrancourt. Lacan asked André Masson, his stepbrother, to build a double bottom frame and draw another picture thereon. Masson painted a surrealist, allusive version of L'Origine du monde.
The New York public had the opportunity to view L'Origine du monde in 1988 during the Courbet Reconsidered show at the Brooklyn Museum; the painting was also included in the exhibition Gustave Courbet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. After Lacan died in 1981, the French Minister of Economy and Finances agreed to settle the family's inheritance tax bill through the transfer of the work ("Dation en paiement" in French law) to the Musée d'Orsay, an act which was finalized in 1995.
During the 19th century, the display of the nude body underwent a revolution whose main activists were Courbet and Manet. Courbet rejected academic painting and its smooth, idealised nudes, but he also directly recriminated the hypocritical social conventions of the Second Empire, where eroticism and even pornography were acceptable in mythological or oneiric paintings.
Courbet later insisted he never lied in his paintings, and his realism pushed the limits of what was considered presentable. With L'Origine du monde, he has made even more explicit the eroticism of Manet's Olympia. Maxime Du Camp, in a harsh tirade, reported his visit to the work's purchaser, and his sight of a painting "giving realism's last word".
By the very nature of its realistic, graphic nudity, the painting still has the power to shock and triggers censorship (see below).
The explicitness of the picture may have served as an inspiration, albeit with a satirical twist, for Marcel Duchamp's last major work, Étant donnés (1946–1966), a construction also featuring the image of a woman lying on her back, legs spread.
In 1989, French artist Orlan created the cibachrome L'origine de la guerre (The Origin of War), a male version of L'origine du monde showing a penile erection.
In February 1994, the novel Adorations perpétuelles (Perpetual Adorations) by Jacques Henric reproduced L'Origine du monde on its cover. Police visited several French bookshops to have them withdraw the book from their windows. A few proprietors maintained the book, but others complied, and some voluntarily removed it.
On February 23, 2009, a similar situation happened in Braga, Portugal, when the police confiscated the book Pornocratie by Catherine Breillat, displayed in bookshops using L'Origine du monde as its cover. A great deal of controversy was sparked by the police action. The reason given was the need to maintain public order. Also, the book title incorrectly hinted at pornographic content. Portuguese law forbids public displays of pornography.
In 2002, American artist Jack Daws created an homage to the painting. Entitled Origins of the World, it is a collection of various photographs of vulvas, taken from pornographic magazines, and framed in montage.
In February 2011, Facebook censored L'Origine du monde after it was posted by Copenhagen-based artist Frode Steinicke, to illustrate his comments about a television program aired on DR2. Following the incident, many other Facebook users defiantly changed their profile pictures to the Courbet painting in an act of solidarity with Steinicke. Facebook, which originally disabled Steinicke's profile, finally re-enabled it without the L'Origine du monde picture. As the case won media attention, Facebook deleted other pages about the painting.
In October 2011, again, a complaint was lodged against Facebook with the Tribunal de grande instance de Paris (Paris court of general jurisdiction) by a French Facebook user after his profile was disabled for showing a picture of L'Origine du monde. The picture was a link to a television program aired on Arte about the history of the painting. As he got no answer to his emails to Facebook, he decided to lodge a complaint for "infringement of freedom of expression" and against the legality of Facebook's terms which define the courts located in Santa Clara County, California, as the exclusive place of jurisdiction for all litigating claims. In February 2016 the Paris court ruled that Facebook could be sued in France.
Although moral standards and resulting taboos regarding the artistic display of nudity have changed since Courbet, owing especially to photography and cinema, the painting remained provocative. Its arrival at the Musée d'Orsay caused high excitement. According to postcard sales, L'Origine du monde is the second most popular painting in the Musée d'Orsay, after Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette.
The Serbian performance artist Tanja Ostojić parodied the work in a poster in 2005, informally called the "EU panties" poster. Like Courbet's painting, the poster proved controversial, and was ultimately removed from the art exhibition in which it was originally displayed.
The image is also referenced as inspiring Catherine Breillat's filming of the female genitalia in her 2004 film Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of Hell).
In 2010, British composer Tony Hymas composed "De l'origine du monde" a musical suite dedicated to the picture as well as relations between Courbet and the Paris Commune, based on texts by Courbet himself, Charles Baudelaire and Pierre Dupont.
The British artist Anish Kapoor created an installation called "Origine du monde", which references Courbet's painting. The piece is in the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa in Japan.
The German-born Turkish artist Taner Ceylan has painted a work named "1879 (From the Lost Paintings Series)" in which a veiled Ottoman lady in street clothes stands before the framed canvas of "l'Origine du monde."Jean Paul Fargier, L'Origine du monde, 1996, 26 minutes