PARIS — Her fame is so great, her beauty so particular, her gaze so challenging that I and many others have wanted to write long articles and books about Victorine Meurent. But there is so little that we really know about her.
And of course that makes her all the more interesting.
She was the great 19th-century French painter Édouard Manet’s favorite model in the 1860s, the central figure in what are certainly his two most famous and most enigmatic paintings: the naked woman at the picnic with clothed men in “Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe” in 1863 and the alluring, challenging, completely naked courtesan in his “Olympia,” first shown in 1865.
While doing research for a book that takes place in Second Empire Paris, I recently revisited “Olympia” at the Musée d’Orsay, hoping that I might find in her a kind of muse opening the way to the decadence and creativity of those years, and I got more than I bargained for. She is, in her own striking way, a muse for the present.
For the first time as I stood in front of the canvas I realized that the woman reclining there on an opulent bed, her only articles of clothing a ribbon around her throat and a flower in her hair, appears to be life size. A servant is delivering flowers from some admirer. A black kitten at the end of the bed screams in fright. And we are in the room with her. Olympia is just looking at us. Directly at us.
Art critic Eunice Lipton described her beautifully some years ago: “Olympia did not drape herself suggestively upon her bed, or supplicate prospective lovers, or droop resignedly,” which is what other women are doing in so many of the paintings on the nearby walls of the Orsay. “Nor did she smile flirtatiously. Rather she reigned imperiously, reclining upon silken pillows, her steady gaze a dare, her tight little body and proprietary hand an omen.”
When the painting was shown at the great yearly Salon in Paris in 1865, critics were deeply offended by those penetrating hazel eyes. They wrote about the “vicious strangeness” of this “woman of the night.” She was “a sort of female gorilla, a grotesque.”
How threatened they must have been.
It is said the painting had to be protected from men who wanted to strike it with their canes.
And how much more threatened, still, they would have been if they learned that this young woman wanted to be a painter, even though she came from a poor family with no leisure for such indulgences. One can only imagine what they would have thought had they learned she was a lesbian, as Lipton concluded in her research for her slender, beautiful book, Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire.
Lipton, a petite, intense New Yorker, who came of age in the late 1960s, discovered “Olympia” in the early 1970s as a symbol in “those opening salvos of the Women’s Movement.” What better icon than “a woman whose naked body said: ‘See this? It’s mine. I will not be the object of your gaze, invisible to my own. This is my body, my life.”
CONSIDER FOR A MINUTE Victorine Meurent’s world.
In the Paris of 1861 whole classes of women were available—the cocottes, the lorettes, the grisettes—whose characteristics were well known to connoisseurs, even impecunious painters and poets. Some of the women were the mistresses of aristocrats and the rising rich of the bourgeoisie who could keep them in luxury, some were the mistresses of several men at a time, who might know perfectly well, but not always happily, that their paramours were the central figures in a small community of lovers. And then there were those women who worked in menial jobs, most famously as laundresses, but who also shared their favors for a few sous, hoping to climb the ladder toward greater comfort, like Émile Zola’s Nana, whatever the ultimate cost. Those were the “grisettes,” and there is even a statue dedicated to them above the Canal Saint Martin.
The Emperor Napoleon III set the tone with his many mistresses, most notably the amazing, beautiful, horribly vain Comtesse de Castiglione. His illegitimate half-brother, the powerful Duc de Morny, made no secret of his relationship with a comely Dutch-born courtesan, and, in 1861, his patronage of her teenage daughter Sarah Bernhardt as an actress at the Comédie Française.
In the 1860s the physiognomy of the once-familiar city was changing daily and dramatically, becoming the Paris that now seems almost frozen in time. Huge new boulevards were being carved through the old quartiers of the Right Bank. Monumental buildings were going up, as solid as stone, as fanciful as the city’s over-wrought imagination. Construction was everywhere. Dust was everywhere. Speculators were everywhere.
This was the Paris of Gustave Flaubert, who’d gained fame and infamy for his novel Madame Bovary a couple of years earlier. Charles Baudelaire’s “Tableaux Parisiens,” published in 1861 as an addition to Les Fleurs du Mal, captured the anomie of the metropolis at once destroyed and created by Napoleon III’s grandiose plans. One of the most striking poems, a lustful, ironic, half-metaphoric ode to a partially naked red-haired beggar girl certainly was not about Meurent but was about the way some men would have seen her:
Pale girl with the auburn hair,
Whose dress through its tears and holes
Reveals your poverty
And your beauty …
Honoré Daumier caricatured Parisians in funny, bitter and increasingly dark detail, while younger painters struggled to break free of classical constraints. Manet and Cézanne were just beginning to come into their own. And the great photographer (and passionate, ambitious balloonist) Nadar tried to document it all.
But it’s the journals of the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules, that record almost day by day the intensity of literary and artistic creation and the casual decadence and domination of sexual relations with woman-objects.
“I have my mistress seated on my knees wearing a shirt,” one of the Goncourts wrote toward the end of 1861. “I see from behind the shadow on the back of her neck, her face in the mirror is in the light. Wisps of her hair escape beneath her ear, curl like tiny agatized branches standing out against the luminous globe of the lamp on the mantelpiece. There is a strange pleasure in having thus on oneself the body of a woman about whom one sees nothing apart from the obscure flight of hair and the luminous reflection of her face, losing a little of its material reality in the mirror’s icy reflection.”
The mistress is talking about death, and Goncourt is condescending to pay attention only for his intellectual amusement. “She’s talking about the burial of a neighbor—one of her favorite subjects. She talks about the decorations on the hearse, the beauty of the coffin whose oak had no knots, and she ends up declaring that if we do not do right by her funeral she would feel mortally offended. The epithet is oddly chosen, no?”
The mistress’s body, her life—even her death was not her own.
THERE ARE DIFFERENT STORIES about how Manet met Meurent, but it is likely that their first encounter came in the atelier of the painter Thomas Couture, whose “The Romans of The Decadence,” an enormous period piece full of drunken men and fawning women, hangs in the Orsay’s great hall almost within sight of “Olympia.”
In the late 1850s Manet was studying with Couture, Meurent was modeling, but it is not entirely clear when they actually became acquainted. Once they were, Manet’s work shows that he could not take his eyes off of her.
Meurent wasn’t just the central figure in “Déjeuner” and “Olympia,” she posed for Manet as a bullfighter wielding a sword, ready to kill with a flourish in “Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of a Matador,” and as an elegant lady in a silk dressing gown in “Woman with a Parrot.” Both paintings now hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She is a street singer holding a guitar in a canvas now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and she appears again in the later, somewhat stilted canvas of a woman with a book, a mother or governess next to a child looking through a fence at an unseen steam engine in “The Railway” at the National Gallery in D.C.
TO TRY TO LEARN more about Meurent, I got in touch with Eunice Lipton and to my delight found that she spends much of her time in Paris. After exchanging a few emails, we met for a glass at a café in the 10th Arrondissement, not far from the Gare du Nord.
“Manet’s world was one world, and Victorine Meurent’s was another,” said Lipton. When they met, he was in his late 20s and she was in her middle or late teens. His background was bourgeois, she was from relative poverty, so there was tension there but also, for him, fascination. “The encounter of class and the encounter of desire is interesting,” said Lipton. He began to paint her in 1861, and as Lipton says, “You don’t have to be an art historian to grasp that there was something between Manet and this woman."
Whether that something was physical is not clear. Lipton thinks not. He clearly loved to paint women, especially the faces of women, and there are other models later on, most notably his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot, whom he drew with unmistakable adoration. She was of his class, and also an accomplished Impressionist painter. But that’s not quite what was going on with Meurent.
What Manet looked to create in his best works, Lipton told me as she sipped a measure of scotch, was “a slab of reality that you wouldn’t forget.” He was in his way a revolutionary, and his passion for Meurent was what she could bring to his canvas, not what she could bring to his bed. “What Manet saw was a harder, crisper view of a Paris that could explode,” said Lipton. “He wasn’t a romantic. He was an anti-romantic, and so was she.”
LIPTON SPENT A YEAR in France in the early 1990s trying to find out what happened to Meurent later in her life, when she was no longer posing for Manet or Degas or another less-revered painter, Alfred Stevens, with whom she allegedly had an affair.
Scholars and avant-garde painters (even Suzanne Valadon, a powerful artist of a later generation whose mother had been a grisette and whose son, the painter Utrillo, was of doubtful paternal provenance) described Meurent as a drunken, dejected woman who prostituted herself. Meurent tried to cadge money from Manet’s widow, and it was said she claimed she was a painter without much to show for it.
As you might imagine, Lipton dreaded coming to that conclusion, and in the end, her dogged detective work established that the conventional accounts of Meurent’s passing were off by about 30 years. She did not die in the late 1880s, as commonly believed, but in 1927. Moreover, Meurent not only learned to paint, her works were presented at the Salon, and in 1876 one of her canvases was accepted when Manet’s were not. In 1879, both she and he were in the “M” room. Her work there, perhaps her most ambitious, was a period piece called “La Bourgeoise de Nuremberg au XVIeme Siecle,” but apart from that little is known. Altogether she exhibited in the prestigious Salon at the Académie des Beaux-Arts six times. In 1903 she was inducted into Société des Artistes Français.
Meurent may well have been a heavy drinker and she may have been a prostitute. There are many accounts of her decline in the 1880s. But it appears she had come out of that slough of despair by the time she started living with a woman named Marie Dufour in a house in Colombes, a town six or seven miles from the center of Paris.
It was not a place where the intellectuals and artists of Manet's milieu often went, if ever, and her paintings were not of the kind that people paid attention to in later years. It seems, perhaps ironically, that they were more in the style of the era’s more conventional artists, perhaps even of Couture.
What Lipton’s research showed her was that the great scholars of avant-garde art, including Adolphe Tabarant, author of what was long regarded as the definitive study of Manet and his work, had looked only at where Meurent came from, not where she was going. When they wrote about her they were focused on “an art world in which she did not live, and with which she had only occasionally rubbed shoulders.”
“In the lexicon of the avant-garde art world, Meurent could not have figured as an artist,” Lipton wrote. “None of this means she was not an artist. It just means that her life was invisible to writers like Tabarant.”
ARE THERE WORKS still extant by Meurent? A little museum in Colombes claims to have a couple. A gallery owner in Paris says he has at least one that is signed. They are not particularly distinguished, and Lipton notes a certain lack of forensic due diligence identifying the age and provenance of some “Meurent” canvases.
Of course, I would like to believe she painted great paintings. But if such works exist, they have not been found, not even the ones that were shown at the Salon.
One might say that Meurent’s life was her art. But I think that’s not quite right. Her survival was her art, and ultimately it was on her own terms.
“See this? It’s mine. I will not be the object of your gaze, invisible to my own. This is my body, my life.”