Writer’s Digest Review


Milgrom masterfully layers art history, social history, biography, memoir, and fiction into this novel with the care and attention to detail of a master portrait artist. Her introduction and epilogue are each just a few pages long, written with economy and control. Nevertheless, she manages to reveal a self-portrait within the portrait that rivals, in words, the brushstrokes of Courbet himself and echoes the meta commentary of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. L’Origine marries historical analysis with artistic observation. The author deftly renders descriptions of space and place to offer the reader a history lesson void of clumsy didacticism or litany. We learn, for example, that Courbet was the first to use monumental scale for non-Biblical subject matter and that Whistler was heavily influenced by Courbet’s Realist Manifesto. The lives of cities are recreated for the reader as well. We learn that Buda and Pest once had a thriving Jewish community and we watch as Paris is introduced to Japonica during the Belle Epoque and catches up to modernity in chapter 17. I love the reactions of Mór and Ferenc to Picasso and Stravinsky in chapter 18. The reader witnesses the initial societal response to unorthodox artistic expression in a far more relatable way than any lecture might convey. These lessons come to the reader as they should, through the carefully observed and faithfully rendered details of the lived experiences of the book’s characters. Milgrom recreates iconic figures with a faithful, cold eye. Indeed, it is through her dispassionate rendering that we come to see a patronizing indifference toward feminism in figures such as Jacques Lacan and Jean-Paul Sartre. While not explicitly calling out their troubling hypocrisy, Milgrom employs Simone de Beauvoir and Sylvia Bataille to relate her feminist perspective. On page 221, de Beauvoir admonishes the objectification inherent in the male response to L’Origine, and chapter 25 is an achingly beautiful description of Sylvia’s lifelong, imposed self-abnegation. Milgrom’s subtle yet shrewd commentary on the male gaze is evidenced when she recounts that Ferenc hid L’Origine because, “some things were not meant for a woman’s gaze”. Further, Milgrom exposes the Madonna/whore complex in all its anxiety with her juxtaposition of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes with the execution of L’Origine du Monde –a stroke of subtle genius. Not since the works of Eugen Weber have I read such an engaging book of history.


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