She was shortly named Jeanne Louise Armande Élisabeth Sophie Septimaniede Vignerot du Plessis (1740 – 1773), the interesting offspring of the age’s most notorious womanizer, duke de Richelieu, with an equivalently devoted wife, Élisabeth Sophie de Lorraine, and he was a Northern God, Gustav III,  King of Sweden, Grand Prince of Finland, heir to Norway bla bla.

She was born in Languedoc county and sent to the Benedictines for a conventional education, marrying the elderly Don Casimir Pignatelli, Count of d’Egmont (loutish, plump, clumsy, the best match ever) when barely turning 15, as the 18th century fashion dictated.

He had troubles with a sort-of Oedipus complex/ annoyingly shy consort, half-English Sophia Magdalena and the embarrassing  rumors about his vacillating sexuality all his woman intimates spread around from quite trivial reasons, which, summing up, wouldn’t have harmed his public image if it weren’t for the two sons, Crown Prince Adolf (1778–1837), and Prince Carl, Duke of Småland (1782 – 1783)  many proclaimed the King couldn’t have fathered due to his  “anatomical problems” that, in the court twisted language, meant homosexuality.

Gustav III

She, as most bored and sexually frustrated girls in her age (thanks to their hubby’s impotence), used the only appreciated thing her spouse possessed, money, obviously, to became a famous salonist, gathering notable voices like that of Enlightenment writer Voltaire or the Romantic Jean-Jaques Rousseau in the privacy of her Paris Hotel. Unable to cheat physically, Jeanne Sophie committed all the impieties of adultery through long colloquies with these brilliant men who, like her, condemned Louis XV’s weakness for the vulgar Madame du Barry. Not beautiful or gripping in the carnal way that incites poets to prize woman’s “virtue” but certainly charming and seasoned with a witty mind, she was pretty appreciated at Versailles, where the Swedish painter Alexander Roslin first laid eyes on her, the result being a crafty work of art, her 1763 portrait in an ivory gown mixing elements of the previous dressing style (the pearl netting) with the modern, Marie Antoinette-ish one, and a dog at her side, symbolizing marital fidelity (a trait inherited from her mother).

jeanne sophie

And Roslin wasn’t the only Swed in her varied entourage: it was through ambassador U. Scheffer, her dear friend,  Jeanne Sophie came to know Gustav III during his visit to Paris, in 1771, a meeting that connected the two so powerfully they continued corresponding long after he returned to Stockholm, exchanging political views and common ideologies, the platonic relationship she had always yearned to have if we judged by her fondly calling him “the hero of my heart”.

She encouraged Gustav to “repress the strife of the raging parties”, advocating a “monarchy restrained by laws”  and gladly welcomed his 1772  coup d’état as it skilfully avoided bloodshed.

Her great influence on him makes us wonder pensively whether our King, engaged in profound personal connections with courtiers Count Axel von Fersen (the guillotined queen’s alleged lizard) and Baron Gustav Armfelt, was genuinely attracted to masculine grace or romantically involved with the Countess. One can never be sure when it comes to palace rumors in th1 1700s.

My romantic propensities, though, tend to imagine a lovely affair between the two parties at a certain point, especially because, let’s face it, vice imbued that epoch and it was near to impossible for a sane high-class lady to remain chaste and exemplary among so colorful delights.

It was in the mid 19th century, when most foreigners would normally yearn for a bottle of classic white wine, a delicious wheel of Brie cheese or least some fiery night with the reputed lorettes who made the prostitutes of the time, that Ottoman diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey (1831-1879) , very respectable man otherwise, commissioned  an erotic painting from libertine Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).

Origin of the World

Roll out the red carpet for “L’Origin e du monde” (“The Origin of the World“), a medium-sized oil-on-canvas naughtily representing the genitals and abdomen of  Whistler’s mistress, Joanna “Jo” Hiffernan, with the cruel realism Courbert was so proud of. Vulgar? Offensive? Gaudy? Maybe, but label it as misunderstood art and here you go! a masterpiece! currently one of Musée d’Orsay’s most appreciated works!

Symphony in White

Only looking at the model, really, you can see she had just one part which truly deserved to be immortalized in Courbert’s picture -and what an inspiring part that was! Visitors today queue to admire and impassionedly comment her precisely drawn fanny, as I observed when I passed through the halls of the museum, few years ago. Can’t blame them, though.

But if nowadays open-minded people curiously gather to watch it, how could such a specific violation of academic canons escape from a scandal while more innocent and traditional portrait like Eduard Manet’s “Olympia” caused a historic outrage?


Well, l”L’Origin e du monde” was sheltered by an usually unlucky factor which can be quite merciless with some things- ignorance. For over two decades, after its first pervert owner, Khalil Bey (remember him?), sold it due to financial problems,  our controversial painting was hidden behind a wooden pane depicting a church (ironically…) with a snowy landscape, in a Parisian antique shop. Since then, it went from Hungarian Baron Ferenc Hatvany’s house to the thievish Soviet troops and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s country estate, the Brooklyn Museum, the Met and ultimately, the Orsay Gallery, its present place.

Thus being mostly privately displayed in the period when it wouldn’t have been accepted and unveiled with “Playboy” ‘s apparition, “L’Origin e du monde” ‘s story is a happy one.

Now it’s hanged between the best works of French masters, showing what a Turk wanted from a French.

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