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Goddesses of French Art:
The True Olympia, Victorine Meurent

Author: Emma Martin

She is best remembered for her impenetrable eyes and their unforgiving stare. Her russet hair and a blush-colored flower behind her ear frame a small pale face, that forever gazes wearily out of the canvas. She is Victorine Meurent, as Olympia. 

It was a scandal, a grotesque work of art which ‘sunk so low it doesn’t even deserve reproach,’ and yet they flocked to see it. The well-dressed sophisticates of mid 19th century Paris jostled and elbowed each other to catch a glimpse of Édouard Manet’s indecent entry to the Salon of 1865.

But what was it that so appalled and angered viewers of Olympia that gendarmes were employed to protect the painting? The woman lounging on the bed was a nude, yes, but she was not the only one in the exhibition. In fact, Western art was full of the voluptuous female flesh of classical figures, their gaze averted, their languorous bodies offered up as pleasure for the male viewer. 

 

Shockingly, Olympia was not only very much a woman of her day, but a prostitute too. The contemporary decor of her room, the ribbon around her neck, the black cat symbolizing lust, and the maid proffering a gift of flowers (presumably from a client), were all pointers to her most sinful of stations. This was not a sedate nude of the past, but an all too modern, living, naked woman!

And to cap it all off, by refusing to employ the subtle shading and fine brushstrokes esteemed by the Academy, and instead reveling in a flattened perspective and contrasting planes of color, Manet had produced an ugly woman who was, ‘a sort of female gorilla, a grotesque in India rubber, outlined in black’.

But what truly enraged the public and evoked such fury about Olympia were her eyes with their defiant stare. By refusing to look away from the viewer, she not only subverted centuries of artistic convention, but threatened the present too. Her insistent gaze challenged the men who looked at her, and instead revealed a woman refusing to be silently and meekly possessed. She could be bought, certainly, but crucially, it was to be on her own terms.

The outrage and disgust that Olympia engendered were not reserved for the painting and its artist, but heaped on its model as well. The public believed that since Olympia was a prostitute, the woman who modeled for her must also be one (especially since that same woman had previously modeled nude for Manet’s other scandalous work, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.) And as conventional morals insisted that a prostitute’s life must be one of despair, no one questioned the stories that circulated about Victorine Meurent; she became old and unattractive before her time; she foolishly and unsuccessfully tried to paint, exhibiting ‘wretched little daubs’ at the 1876 Salon; a ‘sentimental folly’ took her to America; she failed as a music teacher; she lived in squalor; she was an alcoholic.

Her association with this most infamous and scandalous of paintings overshadowed not only her life, but similarly, her death. Art history remembered her as an afterthought, if at all, a degenerate failure whose only achievement was in being painted by one of its most revered figures. She disappeared from the record, and it was assumed that she died, destitute and disgraced, some time in the 1890s.

But this is not a story of despair, it is one of tenacity and redemption. Victorine Meurent proves that if you just look hard enough you will find hidden tales of courage, persistence and success in the face of overwhelming odds.

For the last three decades pioneering art historians, researchers, and novelists have traipsed the streets of Paris, visited endless archives, libraries and museums, scoured the internet and tracked down sources in order to try to tease apart Victorine Meurent from her most famous incarnation. Doubly marginalized in life and history, as both working class and a woman, concrete facts about her have been almost impossible to find. We do know that Victorine Louise Meurent was born on February 18, 1844, to Jean Louis Étienne, an engraver, and his wife Louise Thérèse. The family lived in a small one or two room apartment above a brasserie at 39 Rue de la Folie-Méricourt. She next appears in the records in 1861 as a model in the studio of the now forgotten historical painter, Thomas Couture. Where and when her fateful meeting with Manet occurred is one of the tantalizing unknowns of history. Could it have been at Couture’s (his former teacher), at the house of her father the engraver, or did Manet simply spy her in a crowd? His first painting of her is in 1862, and it is the only one in which he lets her appear as herself, her name in the title. From then on she is the woman who will become whoever he needs her to be; a Spanish bullfighter; a street singer; Olympia. Yet, somehow, she is always Victorine.
Along with Manet she also modeled for Alfred Stevens, Edgar Degas and others. Rumors abounded (and persist) that she had affairs with both Manet and Stevens. Certainly the life of an artist’s model in 19th century Paris was precarious and many not only slept with their artists, but were also reduced to prostitution. There is no evidence that Meurent did either. It is interesting to note that while Manet died at age 51 in 1883 of syphilis, Meurent was not similarly afflicted, and outlived him by many years.
But what of her art? For a girl from a poor background, the chances of attending an art school were vanishingly slim. The official school, the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, did not accept women until 1897. Private academies were available, but for someone of Meurent’s station they would have been prohibitively expensive. Did she become a model as it was the only way she could get close to artists, and the process of creating art? Sadly there is no diary or confessional to let us in on her secrets. Manet’s archive sheds no light either, as the only mention of the woman who played such a pivotal part in his work is her misspelled name, and address in a notebook. Somehow, from 1875-1876, Meurent found enough funds to attend evening classes at the private Académie Julian. In 1876, she exhibited a self portrait at the Salon in the same year that they rejected both of Manet’s works for being too avant garde. The members of the Académie who ran the annual Salon guarded the traditions of French art seriously, and would never have accepted the ‘wretched little daubs’ Meurent is accused of creating. That she had work accepted in the Salon the years 1879, 1885 and 1904 indicate the continuing quality of her work.
More proof that Victorine Meurent was indeed an artist of good standing was her 1903 induction into the important artists’ organization, the Société des Artistes Français. Even more, her membership was supported by the group’s founder. The society even granted Victorine emergency aid in 1909, and again during the first world war, surely not the actions of a reputable society towards an alcoholic degenerate. Why, however, Meurent needed financial assistance in 1909 is unknown. We do know see evidence of her requiring much help earlier in 1883 either. A letter in the Pierpont Library in New York is the only example of her own voice that we have. In it, she writes to the newly widowed Madame Manet of recent ‘misfortune’ that prevented her from modeling. A broken finger which prohibited work of any kind, and the necessary care over her mother meant that she was in need of money that had once been promised to her by Manet. At the time, recently returning from a mysterious journey to America, she had refused his offer, saying instead that when she ‘could no longer pose I would remind him of his promise’. There is no evidence that Madame Manet responded to this plea.
So what are we to make of all this? Accounts of Meurent in the 1880s paint a picture of a woman in trouble. Recalling her request for money in the winter of 1882-1883, Manet’s stepson described her as ‘unrecognizable, she looked deathly’. The artist, Suzanne Valadon, recalled that in 1886 Meurent was considered a ‘so-called artist,’ but in 1887, she was quite simply ‘a whore’. Meurent’s dire financial straits probably say more about the unpredictable nature of the life of a working-class woman, trying to make a living in the 19th century art world, than it does about her. The prostitution allegation is one that is impossible to verify, but certainly in the past, she had been the victim of false smears. And, again, would a respectable society have welcomed a former prostitute into their ranks?
It is thanks to the society’s records that we know that Meurent did not end her life a dissipated shadow of her former self, seeking out a living on the unforgiving Parisian streets. Rather, they reveal that from 1906 until her death in 1927, she was a resident of “Colombes,” a suburb just north of Paris. The census reveals that she lived with one other person, a woman named Marie Dufour, who was eleven years her junior. The census takes place every five years, and in the records, Dufour and Meurent take turns describing themselves as the ‘chef’ (or head) of the household and ‘amie’ (or female friend). Under profession, Meurent describes herself as an artist-painter. The nature of their relationship is uncertain, but it is tempting to imagine them as a couple, with Meurent finally having found love and stability in the final decades of her life. That she describes herself as a painter is a beguiling glimpse into their lives. The question is, though, if she was actively painting during this time, what happened to her art? Dufour died five years after Meurent, and oral history records a large bonfire of the contents of the house, perhaps revealing this disappearance.
Until 2004, all paintings by Meurent were assumed to be lost. Then, Palm Sunday turned up. Painted circa 1880, it shows a young girl in profile holding a piece of a palm frond to mark the religious festival. It is competently and sensitively painted, the girl’s rosy cheeks a pleasing contrast with her dark hair and dress. A decade later, two more Meurent paintings were discovered; Le Briquet, which shows a small boy eating a piece of bread; and Jup, a lively portrayal of a small black and tan terrier. It is enticing to imagine how many more of her works lie unrecognized, waiting to receive the appreciation they deserve.
Thrillingly, a few years ago, Meurent’s 1876 self-portrait was rediscovered. The Victorine we see is more than a decade older than the young woman whose naked form was so scandalized in Parisian society. Her unsmiling face, depicted so often by others, is immediately recognizable. Her famed red hair is swept back atop her head, and her off-the-shoulder dress defiantly gives a glimpse of her body which caused such a furore.