Monsieur Courbet Does It Again

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Monsieur Courbet Does It Again
A few weeks ago, the Musée d’Orsay posted an image of a painting from its collection on its Instagram feed. The post received close to sixty thousand eyeballs and over twelve hundred comments within a matter of hours. The comments were pretty evenly divided between lovers and haters. “Horrible.” “Divine.” “Gross.” “A masterpiece.” There are few paintings in the world that can elicit such a passionate response. If you guessed that the painting in question is Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), you’re right. It’s almost impossible to remain neutral to the sight of a woman’s realistically painted genitals–with the exclusion of the model’s face, arms and legs. This is not the first time the painting has caused a kerfuffle on social media. It took eight years for Facebook to extricate itself from the maw of the French legal system after a French teacher slapped them with a lawsuit demanding compensation for the abrupt deactivation of his account after he posted an image of Courbet’s controversial painting. The lawsuit was finally settled ‘amicably’ last year. It’s a safe bet to say that the social media giant will be steering well away from L’Origine du monde in the future. In this day and age, when erotic and pornographic imagery abound, it is curious that we are still not inured to the sight of a woman’s sex so openly and unapologetically depicted. It stirs in us a primal response. From the earliest dawning of Western religion, the Fall of Man has been attributed to the evil power of female seduction. In the Middle Ages, a woman’s vagina was considered the ‘yawning mouth of Hell’ and fast forward to the 20th century when Freud identified a woman’s genitals as the source of either castration anxiety or penis envy. The ongoing tug-of-war regarding jurisdiction over a woman’s rights to her own body is an extension of the historical, psycho-sexual, cultural and religious morass that surrounds a woman’s genitals. The negative comments on the Orsay’s Instagram account saddened me. As the painting’s first authorized copyist at the Orsay Museum in 2010, I was thrust into the painting’s intimate orbit and spent six weeks replicating every fold, crevice, and pubic hair. Engaging with museum visitors from all over the world, it quickly became apparent that the specter of a woman’s splayed vulva can invoke the entire gamut of feelings ranging from love, pride and excitement to disgust, shame and rage. During my stint at the museum, I came to admire the painting for its sheer beauty, its technical mastery, and its unequivocal homage to the power vested in each and every woman.

Lead photo credit : Photo © Alexander Krivitskiy, Unsplash

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Paris-born Lilianne Milgrom is an internationally acclaimed artist and author residing in the greater Washington, DC, area. Her works can be found in private and institutional collections in the United States, Australia, Israel, France, Switzerland, England, and India. Aside from her blog, she has written essays and articles for publications such as Ceramics Art and Perception, Ceramics Monthly, Bonjour Paris, Dans le ventre des femme and the Huffington Post. "L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece" (Little French Girl Press, 2020) is her first novel.


  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-19 06:21:13
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Brava, Lilianne - So happy to read this excellent article about Courbet and one of his greatest works of art. Best wishes for your book sales, Beth