At Large  June 29, 2020  Karen Chernick

Adventures in Copying "L'Origine du Monde"

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Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Editor's Note: This story contains an adult image that may not be appropriate for all audiences.

For six weeks in 2011, visitors to room 20 of the Parisian Musee d'Orsay didn't know what to look at first—Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde (1866), or the woman copying it at a nearby easel. The infamous 19th-century canvas—which depicts a close-up view of a faceless woman's torso and genitalia—has always turned heads. Seeing a painter reproduce it, live, made visitors witness risqué business times two.

Lilianne Milgrom was the first painter in the museum’s history to copy this notorious Courbet artwork, but it happened almost by accident. A multimedia artist and writer, Milgrom was in the French art capital for a residency program to revitalize her artistic practice. On her second day in Paris, during a requisite pilgrimage to the Musee d'Orsay, she spotted Courbet's much-trafficked painting for the first time and was hooked. Before she left the museum that day, she found herself asking for a copyist's permit. 

“Even though copying the masters is a time-honored means of artistic edification, I had never attempted, nor been tempted, to copy another artist’s work,” Milgrom writes in her book about the experience, L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece, being released in July. “Let alone in public.” Surprisingly, given the bureaucracy usually associated with such requests, the museum said yes. 

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Gustave Courbet, The Origin of the World (L'Origine du Monde), 1866.

But not before the head of the copyist department warned Milgrom: this wouldn’t be easy. 

“It did shock a lot of people that a woman was copying this particular painting,” says Milgrom. “A male copyist would not have caused quite as much perplexity as encountering me painting it.” The painting is often considered a case study for the male gaze—seeing a woman paint it adds a different dimension, one of reclaiming agency over a woman’s body.

Milgrom soon spent the rest of her stay in Paris reproducing the artwork, after getting over an initial hurdle of embarrassment. “A handful of visitors gave me strange looks as I parked my easel in front of the cordon that protected L’Origine,” she writes of her first day. “Looking at a painting like L’Origine on one’s own is one thing, but having others watch you looking is awkward, to say the least.”

But the familiar act of painting transported her to a different zone, one where she could focus on colors, angles, and brushwork and tune out the activity around her. Still, as one of the icons of the Musee d’Orsay, L’Origine du Monde (and Milgrom, by association) saw a steady stream of visitors from Japanese tourists to awkward middle-aged American couples.

Some passersby gave her an encouraging thumbs up. Others were less impressed. “I did have my critics,” she remembers. And a few misconstrued the painting’s subject as an invitation to ask its copyist out on a date. “Some men saw me as the living embodiment of L’Origine by proxy,” she explains.

And one man asked Milgrom, in minimal Russian-accented English, whether she’d let him pose for a photograph as the painting’s copyist, paintbrush in hand. She agreed, learning afterwards that he’s a gynecologist. “So I took the opportunity to ask him whether it was indeed possible to determine whether Courbet’s model was a virgin or not,” she recorded in her journal later that evening. “My personal medical expert lunged forward to peer at the painting with a professional eye. His conclusion? Nyet.”

Milgrom encountered the virgin theory as part of her research on Courbet’s painting, a personal quest that has continued for almost a decade. The work was first commissioned by Ottoman diplomat Khalil Bey and likely immortalizes his lover at the time, dancer Constance Quéniaux. After he went bankrupt (largely due to gambling debts) it passed through various private collectors, and was looted by Soviet troops during World War II. It later hid for years behind a custom-made double frame commissioned by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in which a landscape painting by Surrealist painter André Masson could slide off at will to expose the notorious Courbet. It was after Lacan's death that L'Origine du Monde entered the Musee d'Orsay collection.

But perhaps most of all, Milgrom became intimately familiar with Courbet’s approach to painting. “I learned of his partiality to painting over black. I learned that he was a master with the palette knife,” she says. “And I learned that I will never be able to paint the luminosity of skin as he did.” 

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.

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