Men dream of women.
Women dream of themselves being dreamt of.
Men look at women.
Women watch themselves being looked at.
I feel there is something unexplored about women
that only a woman can explore.
Paris, Winter 2011
It stopped me dead in my tracks. Granted, I was in Paris, but nonetheless, this wasn’t something you’d expect to see in one of the most celebrated museums in the world. Prominently displayed on its own dedicated wall and hanging at eye level was a realistically rendered, X-rated, peep-show perspective of a woman’s exposed genitals. Not a fig leaf in sight. The parted thighs drew my eye toward the riotous pubic bush just left of dead center. The vulva was split asunder by a palette-knife slash of scarlet. A shadowed ravine divided the buttocks into two creamy rounded orbs and only a single breast, crested by a blush-colored nipple, peeked out from beneath rumpled sheets. No face, no legs, no arms. Just lady bits.
I knew that staring was rude, but what could possibly be ruder than what I was staring at? Even sans the strategically angled museum lights and the dusky aubergine backdrop, the painting was riveting. For its modest size, it packed a monumental punch, yet it exuded dignity and reverence—a fitting homage to nature’s inspired genius. The tasteless reproductions stamped onto T-shirts and mugs bore little resemblance to the original painting before me.
Stifled guffaws reminded me that I wasn’t the only voyeur. People were milling about trying not to gape, while others took a good long gawk and scurried off like lecherous patrons at a girlie show on the south side of town. I felt inexplicably affronted on behalf of the headless, nameless model. By contrast, she seemed unfazed and unabashed. The more I gazed, the less she appeared constrained by the ornately carved and gilded frame that confined her. One could almost hear her sigh as she stretched her invisible arms lazily overhead and settled her naked rump deeper into the white bedclothes. The word languishing came to mind. I bent forward to read the caption.
L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), 1866 Gustave Courbet
I was contemplating the pairing of the salacious subject with its provocative title when my reverie was interrupted by a young fellow standing next to me, shaking his head in equal parts disbelief and glee. He too seemed hypnotized by the painting.
“That’s gotta be the first beaver shot in the history of art!” he finally announced to no one in particular. He had a point. There was no disputing that Gustave Courbet had created an unprecedented image for his time. The explanatory wall text informed me that the painting had been hidden or thought missing for close to a century and a half and that it measured a mere eighteen by twenty-two inches. As an artist, I felt sheepish about my ignorance apropos the iconic vulvic portrait. What had motivated Gustave Courbet to paint The Origin of the World and why the eccentric perspective? Who was the model? Clearly, I should’ve been paying more attention during Art History 101 instead of mooning over that cute art student in the back row. Tom? Or was it Trevor? Back then, the painting’s whereabouts were still unknown. Where had it been all that time?
Glancing at my watch, I realized that the afternoon was slipping by. I’d just arrived in Paris on an extended artist residency and was visiting the Orsay to get the creative juices flowing. It was time to expand the aperture beyond female sex organs and take advantage of the museum’s superlative art collection. I stole one last look at L’Origine before meandering through the museum’s galleries and corridors brimming with the choicest paintings, sculptures, and objets d’art from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Yet Courbet’s The Origin of the World had exacted a strange hold over me. Not even my favorite psychedelic Van Gogh portraits, nor Gauguin’s bare-chested Tahitian beauties, could totally erase the lingering afterimage of L’Origine du monde. From the moment I laid eyes on Gustave Courbet’s sensational masterpiece, I was smitten. The audacity, the beauty, the fearlessness of it!
I felt a little frisson working its way up my spine. The frisson, however, didn’t reach all the way down to my feet, which were beginning to rise up in mutiny at having to walk the museum’s hallowed halls for the past four hours. It was time to call it a day. I had to pace myself—this was only the second day of seven glorious weeks in Paris during which I could follow my muse as I pleased. Seven weeks! I wanted to pinch myself.
What transpired next is still something of a mystery. As I made my way to the museum’s exit, my feet took a sudden detour toward the information desk. Elbowing my way through the throng, I tried to catch the eye of the sultry mademoiselle behind the counter who cut a striking figure in her black-and-red striped blouse and matching two-toned hair.
“Excusez-moi,” I said, vying for her attention. “How do I find out about becoming a copyist here at the Orsay?”
My question caught me as much by surprise as it did the Striped Wonder, who, apart from handing out maps and pointing to the impressionist galleries, probably spent most of her days directing visitors to the restrooms.
I repeated my request in French, and her demeanor softened an iota. With a bit more prompting, she outlined an arduous application process that took up to three months and sounded even harder than biting into the end of a stale baguette. Not to be deterred, I explained that I’d come to Paris for seven weeks in toto and therefore could not possibly go through the normal channels. Her helpful demeanor turned mildly sour. With a thin smile she inquired as to which tableau madame had set her sights on? Without a moment’s hesitation, I blurted out: “L’Origine du monde!”
Raising one perfectly groomed eyebrow, the young woman regarded me with renewed interest. “Un petit moment, madame,” she declared as she reached for the phone by her elbow and whispered into the receiver. She instructed me to wait, and I stood nervously off to the side. 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, let alone in public, where one’s artistic shortcomings might be all too evident. I much preferred to make my creative blunders in the privacy of my own studio.
A slightly disheveled woman in black-rimmed glasses appeared and introduced herself as the head of the museum’s bureau des copistes. I listened politely as she repeated the museum’s cumbersome application process. Unable to censor the words coming out of my mouth, I appealed to her for special consideration as if my life depended upon copying Courbet’s painting, a painting that until a few hours before had not even been a blip on my radar. After some intense grilling, my interrogator confided that I was the first artist to request permission to copy the iconic L’Origine. Copying that painting would be a courageous undertaking, especially for a woman, she said warningly. She scanned my over-the-knee boots, ankle-length mohair coat, and the pink-tipped bangs just quirky enough to pass as artsy without setting off any alarm bells.
“D’accord,” she said, evidently finding nothing that would indicate a potential threat to one of the museum’s most prized possessions. “It will be interesting to see the results. Giselle will give you the contract. Come by my office tomorrow afternoon with all the necessary documents. And don’t forget to bring along a canvas that’s fifteen percent larger, or smaller, than the original—that’s up to you. If everything’s in order, you can start copying by the beginning of next week.”
I tried my best to look overjoyed as I gushed my thanks to Madame la Directrice. But as I walked dazedly toward the exit, a terrible sinking feeling was settling itself in the pit of my stomach. What had I gotten myself into? I was riddled with doubt and anxiety. Did I really want to spend my precious time in Paris copying a painting? What purpose would it serve? And how on earth would I manage to gather the required documents by the next afternoon, not to mention the custom-made canvas?
Once I stepped outside, the smell of roasted chestnuts snapped me out of my funk. I looked around at the darkening Parisian cityscape with its copper-streaked cupolas and gold-tipped monuments glittering in the distance. Paris—the city of my birth—never failed to enchant. My previous visits to this magical city had primarily consisted of nostalgic walks down memory lane, punctuated by a daily regimen of pain au chocolat. But this visit was different. I’d come on a mission, albeit a vague one.
For the past several months, I’d been holed up in my studio in Washington, DC, trying to come to terms with the somewhat abrupt realization that I’d reached an age that qualified me as a “woman of a certain age” and with that came the looming prospect of diminishing sexual appeal—a most unappealing thought. I was not prepared to take this injustice lying down and had begun to examine the subject of sexuality and aging in my studio practice. But translating my inchoate emotions into visual language had proven to be an exercise in frustration. It dawned on me one morning that Paris would be the perfect place to pursue this topic. It’s no secret that French men still wax lyrical about octogenarian sex-kitten Brigitte Bardot, and Napoleon himself remarked: “Give a woman six months in Paris, and she knows where her empire is, and what is her due.”
I latched onto the idea with a vengeance, imagining myself enacting my youthful fantasies of the artist’s life in some seventeenth-century garret on the Left Bank. But bankrolling an extended stay in Paris was another matter altogether. After being rejected by the few residencies in Paris that sponsored artists (in one case, because of my age!), I hit a low point in my crusade. That’s when I heard about Madame G.
Rumor had it that the modern-day patroness of the arts offered her residence on the outskirts of Paris to the occasional visiting artist. I wasted no time petitioning the mysterious Madame G. A volley of feisty emails rapidly established that we were kindred spirits, and it was a matter of days before she offered me her Parisian loft rent-free for two months. What artist in his or her right mind could refuse such an offer? There was only one catch—Madame G was leaving forthwith for parts unknown and the offer was good starting immediately, as in tout de suite. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. My husband was on the road more often than not, and my children had flown the coop. That left the cat, who could easily be compensated for my absence with gourmet cat treats. My response to Madam G was a resounding oui!
Barely one week later, I found myself pulled into the vortex of one of the world’s most erotic masterpieces and into the arms of one of the most alluring bad boys in the history of art. As I stood outside the Orsay weighing up the pros and cons of copying L’Origine, a bedraggled accordionist began playing Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” Suddenly, everything fell into place—I had no road map for how to find what I was searching for and no idea what exactly I was hoping to find, but The Origin of the World offered as good a starting point as any.
Winding my long woolen scarf around my neck and chin in typical French style, I crossed the plaza and headed up rue de Solférino with a determined spring in my step and a smile on my face.