Art in Fiction: Finding Inspiration

Lilianne Milgrom, author of L’Origine (Visual Art) about L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet, one of the world’s most scandalous works of art, shares how she was inspired to write the novel and its relationship to three other recent novels about 19th century French artists. L’Origine won the 2021 Publishers Weekly Selfies Book Award for best adult fiction.

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I, along with three other authors, was recently invited to speak at a virtual event about French artists in fiction. We had all written novels centered around great artists who had lived and worked in fin de siècle Paris. Although our novels shared the same setting and even some of the same cameo actors, they differed wildly in the creative ways in which we chose to reveal four giants of art history.

In Loving Modigliani, author Linda Lappin gives us an intimate view of Amadeo Modigliani as seen through the eyes of his tragic young paramour, Jeanne Hébuterne. Lappin’s ghostly narrative interweaves historical fiction with gothic, magical realism. Drēma Drudge’s Victorine channels Victorine Meurent, Edouard Manet’s model and muse whose artistic aspirations and talents have been sorely overlooked by history. Joe Byrd’s Monet & Oscar posits the prospect of an illegitimate son sired by Claude Monet. My novel, L’Origine, provides a nuanced portrait of 19th-century renegade artist Gustave Courbet by following the remarkable odyssey of his sexually contentious painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World).

Listening to my fellow authors talk about how they arrived at their unique story constructions underscored the fact that historical fiction can be fashioned in a myriad of fanciful ways without sacrificing a foundation of solid research. If an author takes a shine to a fascinating historical personage that already has a string of books written about them, there is no reason for despair, let alone abandoning the character altogether. There is an infinite array of literary means with which to introduce readers to a protagonist–even a very famous one.  Authors are limited only by their imagination. Even Manet, Monet, Modigliani, and Courbet can still be mined for untold stories!

Another point that struck me during the author event was the way in which we all stumbled upon our respective subjects. Serendipity appears to have played a major role. It was just a question of being open to the signs. As a professional artist, I never imagined I would spend a decade writing a novel about a salacious painting. But when I came face to face with Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World at the Orsay Museum in Paris, I was smitten. I determined then and there to become the painting’s first authorized copyist, and the rest is history. Literally.

Linda Lappin never set out to write about Modigliani as told by the ghost of his lover Jeanne Hébuterne who threw herself out of a window a few days after Modigliani’s death. In fact, Lappin was researching a totally different book when she happened to attend the first ever exhibition of Hébuterne’s long-lost artworks. Lappin changed course and a different book was born.

When Drēma Drudge was confronted by Manet’s famous painting Olympia, she locked eyes with the reclining nude and felt an inexplicable connection. The model was trying to tell her something, Drudge explains. Thus began the journey that would result in Drudge’s novel, Victorine.

In the case of author Joe Byrd, his obsession with Monet would best be described as a slow burn. Over the years, Byrd made it his business to read almost every book written about Monet and finally decided to write his own twist on Monet’s story.

I believe that authors possess highly attuned antennae that are always seeking an interesting story. It’s a matter of paying attention to what the universe is telling us. The lesson learned is applicable to many of life’s situations: Be open to new experiences and follow your gut!

Find out more about Lilianne Milgrom and her work at

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