She was the Kate Moss of her day, her face ushering in a realist art that shocked the Paris bourgeoisie. But who was she? Observers at the time assumed she was a common courtesan, the artist’s lover, or maybe just a scamp from the street. She wasn’t a classical professional artist’s model, who would have posed gracefully, portraying nymphs and muses of old. Nor was she a socialite whose life would be chronicled in the city’s gossip columns. Victorine Meurent was simply a Parisienne – one whose look and ambitions brought her into contact with the artist who was revolutionizing French painting. And that association would land them both in the center of controversy.
The artist and model were from completely different classes: Édouard Manet was the son of a French judge, who expected him to become a lawyer; after convincing his father to let him join the navy, the young Manet found a sympathetic captain who let him sketch while at sea, giving him lightweight duties such as repainting the wax skins on cheeses . Finally the Judge relented and allowed his son to study art, sending him to classes at Thomas Couture’s studio. The young Manet didn’t live a down-and-out bohemian life, though: he lived with his parents and kept secret his love affair with his piano teacher, who he finally married when his father died and he could claim his inheritance.
Much less is known about Victorine Meurent. We know that her father was an engraver, and that she could play guitar and draw. We also know that she later studied painting. But as an eighteen year-old working class Parisian girl, there’s just no record – she didn’t write journals, and even her schooling is uncertain. Scholars have searched for information about her life, but details are sketchy: she modelled at Thomas Couture’s studio for a short time, but Manet had left Couture’s mentorship before he could possibly meet her. Some suggest that he visited her father’s workshop and met her there. The most popular legend of their meeting is that he saw her on the street and approached her to model for him.
The “street approach” is odd in itself: there was a “model market” in Montmarte, where art models would stand and wait to be hired by artists or ateliers. But Manet and other painters looking to innovate were tired of the classical poses offered by these models. They wanted to paint modern women – women whose faces (and bodies) spoke to them. Manet had already split with his teacher Couture over wanting to paint contemporary figures in clothing instead of nudes. He also wanted to paint “real faces.”
Victorine was an odd-looking model, anyway: she wasn’t stately or voluptuous, and she wasn’t a great beauty. Her miniscule size and her red hair earned her the nickname “La Crevette” or “The Shrimp”. But Manet must have seen something mutable in her, because she was his favorite model for more than a decade.
After a quick painting of Victorine as herself, Manet dressed her up in a Spanish matador’s costume. He had fallen in love with Velazquez while learning his craft copying masterworks at the Louvre, and all things Spanish were in vogue in Paris at the time:
There was love and hate for the painting – inspired by Japanese woodblocks, Manet was flattening the contours of his paintings, and often disregarded the rules of perspective for the sake of his desired composition. This created maddeningly non-realistic effects for contemporary art viewers – many of his contemporaries thought he was simply unable to paint well. In addition, her shoes were all wrong – and yes, people complained.
Manet also posed Victorine for The Street Singer, giving her a guitar and a half-eaten bag of cherries. Inspired by a cafe singer leaving a sleazy cafe, the painting discards any sense of romantic artistic ideal for the realities of working class musicians and their crudeness. As a model, Victorine was mutable, and willing: when another potential model hesitated before his offer, he commented: “If she doesn’t want to, I have Victorine.”
And then Manet decided it was time to paint a nude. And he did it in a way that allowed him to paint contemporary figures in clothing as well:
There’s no way to convey how shocking this painting was at the time: while Parisians were fully open to appreciating the nude female, there was always a classical rationale for her nudity, separating her from present reality. Nudes in paintings also tended to look dreamily away from the viewer, so one could ogle or appraise without apparent recrimination. The contrast between Victorine’s nakedness and the full clothing of the two men with her brought viewers into a very contemporary situation – and probably a compromising one at that. And her stare put any viewer on the spot – whatever these people are doing with their afternoon, you’re the one who’s walked in uninvited. Manet’s flatness of modelling and inclusion of another vaguely clothed figure in the background gave critics more to complain about, but it was Victorine’s stare that created the tension.
Not that the painting was shown at the Paris Salon with other masterworks: the Salon’s art selection process was so twisted by politics at the time that the conservative jury rejected anything unconventional. In addition to Déjeuner, works by Pissaro, Whistler, and Cézanne were excluded from the official Salon. The whole thing was such a mess that it was decided to have another Salon for the paintings that didn’t make the cut. Déjeuner was one of those paintings, and even though Manet had shown before at the official Salon, many were not sure if this painting was avant garde, or just terrible, as most shown at the ‘Salon des Refusés’ undoubtedly were. But the painting did cause a row – the Empress Eugénie pronounced it “obscene”.
Manet didn’t hang around and argue about any of this – he was working on another painting. Another nude, which he painted and repainted until it was exactly as he wanted. And then he waited a year before submitting it. Was he worried that the fuss over Déjeuner sur L’Herbe would prevent it from being shown? We’ll never know, but it was accepted to the Salon of 1865. He titled it Olympia:
We’ve seen this painting in reproduction so many times, it’s hard to fathom why people would be so upset at it. But there were so many things here that would have shocked a contemporary Parisian. For starters, there was Manet’s lack of subtle modelling, his wood-block inspired coloring. The composition was based on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a nude of demure and goddessly virtue. Except instead of the goddess, there was Victorine posing as a contemporary Parisienne courtesan. And again, she was staring straight at the viewer – without a hint of embarrassment or coquettishness. Once again, Manet had painted the viewer into an awkward encounter.
Even in modern times we expect our whores to project either seduction or shame, so Victorine’s matter-of-fact expression is startling in any age. But in 18th century Paris it hinted at a moment many had never seen – and those that had probably pretended they hadn’t. This might be a “backstage” moment – before the courtesan greets a lover, and it’s almost too revealing in its frankness – we see the courtesan’s youth, beauty, cynicism, and business acumen all at once. That stare gives away the game.
It was too much for both the public, who found it obscene, and the critics, who could mask their moral outrage or embarrassment with complaints about the flatness of the picture and its lack of rosy skin tones. Fortunately the painting had been placed high on the wall – people were threatening it with umbrellas and walking sticks. Manet was distraught over the fuss – while a few fellow painters loved his work, most critics and patrons proclaimed his work terrible.
No one knows what Victorine thought about all of this – she didn’t leave any diaries, and models were pretty much assumed to have nothing constructive to say. Many assumed that she was having an affair with the artist – though many make that assumption about all painter’s models, and all painters. Manet never recorded any affairs himself, so who knows? He did continue to have Victorine pose for him, in various guises, some of them quite elegant:
But Victorine and Manet did drift apart, possibly when Victorine started taking painting classes herself. While her personality – and certainly her looks – may have been outside the mainstream, Victorine wanted traditional credibility in the art world. And who could blame her? It wasn’t easy to be a woman painter at the time at all, and she certainly didn’t have the inheritance to go against tradition. She had a self portrait exhibited at the 1876 Paris Salon, which incidentally refused two of Manet’s works. She went on to have paintings accepted at five additional Salons. But life got hard for Victorine – she fell into poverty and alcoholism, writing to Manet’s widow for money (which she didn’t get) and roaming Montmartre telling stories about Manet to whoever would buy her a drink (which was far more successful.)
Victorine did pull herself together, though: by 1893, she was exhibiting her paintings again, and in 1903 she was made a member of the Société des Artistes Français, an accolade granted to few women at the time. And she moved out of Paris to live to old age with a friend (and possibly lover) Marie Dufour, who was listed in city records as a secretary and piano teacher. Unfortunately, we have only one of Victorine Meurent’s paintings left to ponder:
Victorine Meurent’s presence – and her modern, confrontational stare – make us all wish we knew her better. Knowing that she became a painter herself makes us wish that she had left more records of her inner life. Being a creative woman in the nineteenth century was not easy – career options were a whole lot more limited, and bourgeois society was not kind to women who broke its rules. We want to know how she survived – and perhaps even thrived – as she went through a tumultuous life in the Paris art world. Art historians have even resorted to imagining her life in the absence of so many details. Because when we see her in Manet’s paintings, we recognize her as a modern, real woman – and in a way, we want her to be our muse as well.