We had been in the Musée D’Orsay for three hours. We had begun the visit by taking the escalator to the top floor, where we peered out through the back of a giant clock face to catch a glimpse of Sacré-Coeur perched on the highest hill in Paris. Wearing audio guides around our necks, we had worked our way from gallery to gallery, through the vast space of that former grand train station, until we were back on the main level where we had entered. My legs were stiff, the kids’ stomachs were rumbling, and I could tell from the glazed looks in their eyes that the beautiful works of art that surrounded us had lost their ability to impress. We had reached the point of art-overload.
But Steve was not ready to go.
“There’s just one more painting I really want to see,” he said. “Do you guys mind? I think it’s on the way out.”
I was not surprised by my husband’s request. Although he had majored in biology in college, his favorite class in those four years had been art history, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to see a work that he had studied.
Guided by his museum map, Steve led the way through the marble statues, and we followed like soldiers into the room he had identified as the location of this famous work. The room was wide, with a high ceiling, and with art expertly arranged on the walls to the right and left. The art on the wall straight ahead of us, at the other end of the room, was partly obscured by a large group of teenagers who appeared to be part of a tour.
“It should be right over there,” Steve pointed. He had just uttered the words when, like magic, the crowd parted like a curtain, to reveal the work of art that the teenagers had been studying up close.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was not it. There before us was an oil painting of a woman’s pubic area, larger than life. The curly black hair in the center of the painting left no question that it could be anything else. It was a zoomed-in view, so above the pubic hair you could see her smooth stomach, her navel, and one breast and nipple peeking out from under a white bedcovering; below the triangle of curly hair, her fleshy white upper thighs were spread, revealing “L’Origine du monde” — The Origin of the World.
That’s what the painting was called. I found that out later. Unlike my husband, I did not take an art history class in college.
I blinked a couple of times, unsure how to react. My 17-year old daughter, my 15-year-old son, and my 13-year-old son turned and looked at me, their eyes wide, their eyebrows arched quizzically, their mouths slightly open. I shrugged an “I had nothing to do with this!” type of shrug, and we all looked at Steve for an explanation.
My husband, I should mention, is a family practice doctor. Although he stopped delivering babies and sees only elderly patients now, he is more than familiar with the female body. He also is a proponent of demystifying the human body in general. From before the time our kids were old enough to talk, he insisted on teaching them the proper medical terms for the parts of the body, including genitalia. I was not opposed to this, although it did cause me some embarrassment the time our daughter loudly declared at age 2, in front of my parents, that her vulva had tooted.
My husband, I should also mention, is not a prude. He has appeared on stage in community theater productions dressed like a woman more than once—as “Little Mary Sunshine” in Chicago, for example, and as the emcee in Cabaret. In the twenty years that we’ve been married, and the six years that we dated before marriage, I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen him blush.
He was not blushing now, standing with our teenagers in front of a painting of the largest vulva I had ever seen. But he looked sheepish and confused.
“That is not the one I wanted to see,” he said slowly, shaking his head, clearly embarrassed.
Louisa, Sebastian, Elias and I looked at each other, and smiles began to creep around the edges of our mouths. Someone let out a giggle, and that started it—we all began to laugh. All of us except Steve, who was still searching the wall in vain for this mysterious “other painting.”
“There’s another one of Courbet’s paintings that was supposed to be here,” he insisted, defensively. “That’s what I was I looking for.”
We only laughed harder. It was the kind of contagious laughter that comes in waves—you think it’s dying out, but then one person snorts, or titters, and it returns with even greater force and intensity.
I suppose Steve and I should have taken that opportunity, as responsible parents, to have an intellectual conversation with our teenagers about this provocative work of art, which Gustave Courbet painted in 1866. We could have discussed his technique, debated the difference between art and pornography, or perhaps gotten into the topics of censorship, or the depiction of the female body through the ages.
But I knew those lessons were unlikely to be absorbed at this point in the day. All our kids wanted to do was return to the apartment and have dinner with our French hosts. Besides, wasn’t the ability to laugh at oneself while pondering the mysteries of the human condition a valid part of art appreciation?
The kids seemed to think so. A few minutes later, in the gift shop, they stood in front of the wall of postcards and grinned.
“Hey, Dad.” They pointed to a miniature version of a now-familiar painting. “Do you need one more postcard before we go?”