L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece

Written by Lilianne Milgrom
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

An artist encounters Gustave Courbet’s explicit painting ‘L’Origine du monde’ (1866), in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and feels compelled to copy it. The action then shifts back to the commissioning of the painting by Ottoman-Egyptian diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey; Milgrom accepts the theory (supported by correspondence between Alexandre Dumas and Georges Sand) that the model was probably Bey’s mistress, Constance Quéniaux. The first part of the painting’s story is chiefly told through the points of view of Courbet and Bey, but the unifying thread throughout is the mute voice of ‘L’origine’ itself.

Sometimes the book reads like straight history, yet Baudelaire, Courbet’s mistress Joanna Hiffernan, Edmond de Goncourt and others appear as convincingly alive characters, not distant historical figures. Courbet is imprisoned for his part in the Communard demolition of the Vendôme Column, in an episode reminiscent of this year’s toppling of monuments associated with slavery. In part two, the painting’s fortunes are caught up in the plight of the Jews of wartime Hungary, and in the final part ‘L’origine’ is found in the circle of Picasso, Sartre, and de Beauvoir – and in effect psychoanalysed – for every work of art is inevitably viewed through the lens of the time it finds itself in.

Milgrom’s historical grasp of her subject is impressive; the only lapse is a reference to a ‘Tintoretto altarpiece in Rome’ (Venice, surely?). The book’s structure appropriately reflects Schnitzler’s play, ‘Reigen’, for it brings us (through a century and half) back to where we started from, in a deft blurring of fiction and reality, in which a painting commissioned for strictly private use is now gazed at by thousands.