A fascinating story of Gustave Courbet’s fabled painting, L’Origine du monde
In 2011, the author arrived in Paris to begin an extended artist residency and visited the Orsay Museum before settling in on her work. During the visit, she was captivated by the celebrated work, The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, a realistic portrait of a supine woman’s exposed genitals (no face, arms, or legs). She was compelled to apply to be a copyist at the museum with L’Origine du Monde as her subject. Over the next seven weeks, she attempted to reproduce Courbet’s iconic work, all the while under the watchful and curious eyes of thousands of daily museum-goers. The copyist’s goal is to expand their skills and techniques as they try to duplicate the actions of the masters, but Milgron got more than this. She also gained insight into the world’s view of what a woman is, what it means to be female, and a deeper regard for her own femininity and sexuality. She also became determined to discover the history behind the museum’s mythic painting and one of its most prized possessions.
L’Origine presents the work’s journey from Courbet’s first imagining through creation in 1866 to its various owners. Due to its controversial subject matter, it was kept hidden out of sight for decades, only shared with a few select friends of each owner, but its existence was whispered about and speculated upon for years. Lost during World War II, it surfaced once again, and through a series of private transactions, it finally returned to Paris, the home of its birth, and became a treasured part of the Orsay’s collection.
This fictional account of how the painting came to be displayed and viewed by more than a million visitors a year at the Orsay Museum was a highly satisfying story. Beginning with the author’s artist residency in Paris, the trip back through time was both magical and eye-opening. I learned so many interesting things about that time period in Paris when Courbet was active, the Realism movement, his contemporaries, and the effects on the art world by what was going on politically at that time. Some of the painting’s owners were in the thick of a hotbed of political unrest and, eventually, war in Europe.
I especially appreciated Milgrom’s recounting of her own experiences at the museum in Paris while a copyist. Her stories of the reactions of the visitors viewing the painting were varied and telling and did cause me to contemplate my own feelings about the work and the subject as well as historic and modern ideas regarding women’s sexuality. There are some excellent, thought-provoking questions for discussion at the end of the book.
I recommend L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece by Lilianne Milgrom to readers of historical fiction and especially to those interested in the world of art or art history.
I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from the author.