The painting above, Le Jour des Rameaux or Palm Sunday, is unique in as much as it is the only surviving painting by my featured artist. It was recovered in 2004 and can now be found hanging in the local museum of Colombes, a suburb of Paris. The artist who completed the work in the 1880’s is Victorine Meurent. “Victorine who? “, do I hear you say. If you haven’t heard the name as an artist, you may have heard of her as an artist’s model.
Victorine Meurent was born into a working class family in Paris in 1844. It is thought that her father worked as an engraver, a patinator of bronze, and her mother worked as a milliner. Little is known of Victorine’s teenage years but it is known that she had a musical aptitude being able to play various instruments, such as the guitar and violin. It is also thought that she must have shown an interest in art as it is believed that in 1860, at the age of sixteen, she worked as a model at the Senlis studio of the French history painter, Thomas Couture, and it was here she probably received her first artistic tuition. Two years later, in 1862, she met Édouard Manet. One account tells of their meeting at Couture’s studio, another version of the meeting was that Manet saw her walking down a Paris street carrying her guitar. Whatever the circumstances of that first encounter, there was an immediate rapport between these two very different characters. She was a young unsophisticated girl from a poor background eking out a living as an artist’s model whilst at the same time struggling to become an artist in her own right. Édouard Manet, on the other hand, was twelve years her senior, a wealthy painter who came from an aristocratic background. So what could the two offer each other? I suppose it is obvious. For her, Manet could provide her with employment as his model and at the same time offer her some drawing tuition. For him, being a painter, he was always on the lookout for a good looking young female model and Victorine with her eye-catching long unruly red hair was just what he liked. She was small, slightly dumpy in stature, which often led her to be given the nickname, la Crevette, the shrimp. She was not what one would describe as an elegant beauty but she appealed to Manet. It was almost a marriage made in heaven and she would, for the next ten years, become Manet’s favourite model.
The first time Manet used Victorine as a model was for a painting in 1862. The painting is entitled Street Singer, which is now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The woman we see depicted is modelled by Victorine. She is hurriedly leaving a café, with her guitar securely tucked under her arm. She is dressed in a drab brown gown alluding to the fact that she was poor and did not have the money to buy a new one. She has been performing her music at the café and appears to be in a hurry to get to her next musical appointment. Although she has no time to loiter, she quickly glances towards us and, at the same time, crams cherries into her mouth. This gesture once again alludes to the fact that she is not one of Paris’ refined ladies. She is too busy to stop and soon will disappear amongst the bustling Parisian crowd. This painting by Manet was in some ways a new kind of art. It was not the academic art which depicted women in scenes from the bible or from mythological stories. This art of his depicted real life, real people and as he himself said:
“…You must be of your time and paint what you see…”
Probably the two most famous or maybe infamous works by Édouard Manet, and which also featured Victorine Meurent, were the nude portrayals of her in his 1862 painting Olympia (see My Daily Art Display Oct 12th 2011) and his 1868 painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (My Daily Art Display Oct 23rd 2010)
The larger version of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe can be found at the Musée d’Orsay whilst a smaller version is housed in the Courtauld Gallery in London. We see her completely naked with two fully clothed men lounging on the grass having just partaken of a picnic with two gentlemen friends. The painting caused a furore and Victorine was caught up in the public scandal which followed the exhibition of the work. It was said that respectable men hurried their wives past the naked depiction of Victorine before they themselves returned for a closer look !!! Emperor Napoleon III who visited the exhibition was vociferous in his condemnation of the work saying that it was disgusting.
What particularly shocked the public was that she was portrayed as a naked woman who exhibited no mortification at her compromising position alongside two fully clothed men. The man sitting next to Victorine was modelled by Manet’s brother-in-law, Ferdinand Leenhoff, and the man laying back opposite her is a composite of Manet’s two younger brothers, Eugène, who went on to marry the artist Berthe Morisot, and his other brother Gustave. If we looked at historical paintings of the time, naked women who were depicted as nymphs or goddesses were more likely to be shown shrinking from the viewer in order to reach some piece of clothing to hide their nudity. In Manet’s picture, the young woman makes no attempt to hide her nudity. She just sits there, seemingly bored by her companions and what they had to say and appears to have been lost in thought until we came on to the scene. Now she fixes us with her gaze and we are made to feel uncomfortable as we take on the role as voyeurs. It was maybe not just Victorine’s state of undress that shocked the public but her haughty and reproving gaze that caused the upset. This painting had been rejected by the jurists of the 1863 Paris Salon and so Manet had to turn to the Salon des Refusés for inclusion in their exhibition.
As Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe shocked the public and caused such a stir one may have been forgiven for thinking that Manet, with his model, Victorine Meurent would tone down his next work. Far from toning down the subject of his next painting, he shocked the public even more with his following work which he completed in 1863, and which was entitled Olympia. If we recall Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe we have to admit that there was no hint of sexual activity having taken place at the picnic. The furore was caused by a naked woman being depicted next to two clothed gentlemen and if we, the viewers, wanted to accept a sexual connotation to the depiction then that was more of what was in our mind and not what was depicted on the canvas. However Olympia went a step further by depicting the lady, modelled by Victorine, as a courtesan awaiting her next client. The bedclothes she lies upon are still rumpled from her previous sexual encounter. Her black maidservant has just brought her flowers from her next eager client but the courtesan ignores them and just looks out at us, a sign that the flowers meant nothing to her and it was simply a case of business is business. One can just imagine how the visitors to the exhibition felt when they saw this work. It is believed that this depiction of a female nude by Manet was the first time an artist had depicted a naked female.
Although similar to Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus Manet’s work did not hide the nudity as part of a mythological scene. Another reason for the public’s condemnation of the work was the fact that Victorine’s face is clear. Manet has not depicted the naked woman with just an indistinct face. The face is real and by doing this Manet has humanized his courtesan or prostitute and it is that which upset the viewing public. Maybe the gentle folk of Paris did not want to be reminded that prostitution existed and flourished in their fair city. Courtesans had been depicted before in 19th century paintings but it was Manet’s unabashed and honest depiction of a prostitute lounging in bed, naked except for a pair of slippers and a necklace, which shocked the Parisians.
The Manet painting I like the most which also featured Victorine was his 1873 work entitled Gare Saint-Lazare often known as The Railway (My Daily Art Display Nov 9th 2011). This was the last painting by Manet featuring Victorine and can be seen at the Royal Academy’s current exhibition Manet, Portraying Life.
Although Victorine Meurent was used as a model in those three paintings, were they accurate portraits of the model? Not really and one must remember they were never supposed to be portraits of her but if we really want to see what she looked like at the age of eighteen we should take a look at Manet’s 1862 portrait of her, Victorine Meurent. She is not a Society beauty and yet Manet has afforded her all his time to depict her beautifully in this portrait. The first thing that strikes you about this young woman is her red hair. We do not see the flowing locks we knew she had as her hair is held in place by a blue ribbon bow. Her eyelashes are much lighter than the colour of her hair. They are almost blonde and are somewhat difficult to detect. There is a strange blankness about her expression. It is a look of indifference. Her lips are pressed tightly together. She has a square jaw and a cleft chin. We look at her face and wonder what she was thinking when Manet was painting her portrait. Her forehead and left cheek are lit by an external light source which comes from her right.
During the time she was Manet’s model, she also worked as a model for Manet’s artist friends, Edgar Degas and the Belgian artist, Alfred Stevens who it is rumoured would later become her lover. The Manet-Victorine Meurent partnership ended shortly after the artist had completed The Railway. Victorine, by then, had taken up formal art lessons and her love of art leaned towards academic art which was anathema to Manet and may have caused the two to go their own separate ways. In 1876 she had her self portrait exhibited at the 1876 Salon. This was the same Salon that rejected two of Manet’s works, The Laundress and The Artist. Manet was so annoyed by that decision that he opened his studio to the public to exhibit the refused paintings and other works. Three years later in 1879 Victorine Meurent had her painting, Bourgeoise de Nuremberg au XVIe siècle, accepted at the Salon. This time Manet’s works, Boating and The Greenhouse were also accepted for the exhibition. Victorine managed to have her works accepted at six different annual Salons.
Victorine remained and worked in Paris, but times got harder for her and there is no doubt that she was suffering financial hardship. In total desperation, it is said that in August 1883, five months after Manet’s death, she approached Manet’s widow for financial help. She told Madame Manet that her late husband, Édouard, had promised to provide her with some money if he ever was successful in selling the paintings for which she had posed. At the time Victorine had declined Manet’s offer but had told him that she would remind him of it once her career as an artist’s model was over. Her appeal for money to Manet’s widow fell on barren ground and Victorine was never recompensed. According to Édouard Manet’s biographer, Adolphe Tabarant, Victorine, in the 1890’s spent a lot of time around Montmartre drinking heavily, and telling stories about her and Manet to anybody who would listen to her and buy her a drink. It would appear that things got somewhat better for Victorine for in 1893 as it is recorded that she was again exhibiting her artwork, this time at the Palais de l’Industrie.
In 1903, aged 59 she was made a member of the Société des Artistes Français. Three years later she left central Paris and moved to the northern suburb of Colombes where she lived with a friend, Marie Dufour. The local census records show that Marie Dufour worked at different times as a secretary and a piano teacher and Victorine was listed as an artist. Meurent died on March 17, 1927 aged 83. After the death of Marie Dufour, in 1930, the contents of the house were liquidated; in the late 20th century, elderly neighbours recalled the last contents of the house, including a violin and its case, being burnt on a bonfire.
Many rumours still surround the life of Victorine Meurent. She was rumoured to have plumbed the depths through drink and unsavoury tales abound regarding her sexual habits and her sexuality but I would rather just think of her as Manet’s muse and inspiration who, as a young girl, became part of some of his greatest works of art.