Joanna Hiffernan was clearly a woman in demand, for she was the partner of American artist, James Whistler, for an extended period. Some have suggested that the breakdown in friendship between Courbet and Whistler, which was somewhat acrimonious, must have centered around their respective relationships with Jo. You will see her trademark red locks appearing throughout Courbet's catalogue of paintings and even just for this single painting there were a number of study pieces for which she also would have sat. Art history is full of artist's and their muses bonding over time and eventually building romantic relationships and that may well have occurred here too.
Whilst female models were clearly common in art history, going back many centuries, it was rare for an artist to actually name them within the title of the painting. By doing so here, it reminds us as to just how close these two were. There were four near identical versions of this paintings in total, some being discovered relatively recently. They can now be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and also in Zurich in a private collection. The dimensions and features of each of these four are relatively similar. Perhaps the main difference between the two is in the colour balance and the extent to which Jo's hair shows off the beauty of its red celtic tones.
The model for The Origin of the World for a long time was believed to be Joanna Hiffernan but this is now considered unlikely because of her fair features. The assumption was probably initially made because of her strong connection to the artist and also the way in which he used her for some of his more controversial pieces. It is likely that at this stage in European history, French artists may have seen red hair as almost exotic, certainly only coming across it on very rare occasions. Courbet's own features were famously French in-style, long dark hair, striking facial features and a confident persona - but perhaps he was wooed by this celtic beauty.