Goddesses of French Art:
The True Olympia, Victorine Meurent
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.