Victorine Meurent

// 3 October 2008

Victorine Meurent has, for the most part, been known to the world only as Edouard Manet’s model in a number of controversial paintings.

Over at the Guardian today, V R Main provides a different perspective:

It was more than a century after Edouard Manet’s death that the art historian Eunice Lipton discovered that his model, Victorine Meurent, had actually lived to be 83. And it seems unlikely that she was his grisette – a young woman in a casual relationship with an artist – let alone a prostitute. Manet died at 51 from complications related to treatment for syphilis, then an incurable disease. If there had been a sexual relationship, Meurent would probably have died far earlier than she did.

Most importantly, Lipton realised that Meurent had fulfilled her painting ambitions and exhibited at the 1876 Salon – in the same year that Manet’s work was rejected. And Meurent’s story has a very recent postscript. It was thought that all her work had been lost but, just yesterday, a museum in Colombes, France, took possession of one of her paintings – another fascinating piece in the puzzle of her life.

Unfortunately, the online version of this story doesn’t include a photo of this painting, and is instead illustrated with one of Manet’s more famous paintings for which she modelled.

The question remains: why was Meurent so dismissed by the painter’s biographers? After all, Manet’s inner circle seems to have recognised her importance. The artist’s close friend Antonin Proust noted in his memoirs that Meurent was Manet’s favourite model (she posed for nine of his canvases); Jacques-Emile Blanche, who also knew the painter, was moved to ask, “How often does a chance meeting between a painter and a model decisively influence the personality of his works?”

But while Meurent’s contribution was recognised by Manet’s friends, her willingness to pose naked made her a notorious figure to the general public, undermining her hopes of being taken seriously. In 18th- and 19th-century art, female nudes were highly appreciated, as long as they represented goddesses or mythical figures. In contrast, the women in Manet’s most famous paintings, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia, both modelled by Meurent, clearly belonged to contemporary Paris. And they weren’t idealised goddesses; several critics commented that Meurent’s body was far from perfect.

Main interprets Manet’s portraits of Meurent as feminist:

Le Déjeuner is such a strong painting that it inspired me to research its model and write a novel based on what is known of her life. The painting is a feminist work: it presents a powerful woman, offered for male inspection, but not objectified; the model’s challenging stare meets the viewer’s gaze in a way that thwarts desire. The female figure is disconcerting, exploding the stereotype of an anonymous, passive woman. In both Le Déjeuner and Olympia, Meurent refuses to collude with the spectator; her sexuality is all her own.

The challenging nature of the Meurent portraits was not immediately appreciated by the public, and at a time when poor women were often forced to sell themselves, a woman whose naked body could be seen in public – albeit in an oil painting – was straight-forwardly perceived as a prostitute. When Le Déjeuner was first exhibited, at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, the public’s response ranged from laughter to outright violence: more than one visitor expressed his outrage by hitting the image with a stick. Men would hurry their wives and children past the painting, only to return later to stare at it alone. The critical reception was no different to that of the public. Meurent acquired notoriety and became known by name, unusual for a model at the time.

Comments From You

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 3 October 2008 at 4:39 pm

Hardly feminist when Victorine Meurent was depicted totally naked whereas the white middle class men were fully clothed. Now if the white middle class men had been painted all totally naked with Ms. Meurent fully clothed – that would be a feminist statement against the very, very long history of portraying women’s bodies as men’s sexualised commodities.

tom hulley // Posted 4 October 2008 at 8:31 am

How disappointing that Meurent’s work cannot be found online. I searched some time ago and was very irritated to find a Manet picture on all Meurent biographical entries. She is one of many women artists ignored by history but despite prejudice of the time she exhibited her work successfully in France at the highest level.

Another artist who came to fame first as a model and was perhaps more groundbreaking and successful was Suzanne Valadon. One difference is that she had the early encouragement and support of Degas. Valadon’s story says so much about women in art. The dealers and buyers and critics are mostly male so women once again depend on male favour. Her less talented but notorious son, Maurice Utrillo, became much more famous. Valadon herself produced important work through her life while caring for her alcoholic son, a husband and a difficult old Mum. She was also a real community spirit supportive of others. (I doubt if any ‘great’ male artist ever looked after anyone!) Indeed, in Degas’ dotage she found him a new home and always kept an eye on the old man.

(By the way, Degas is often portrayed as misogynist by American academics but he was the first to paint women with respect and quick to recognise and promote female talent.)

More has been written about Cassatt and Morisot from the era of impressionism but they get nothing like the attention of Renoir, Monet and co.

For people interested in women’s art in the UK, the Cambridge college New Hall (soon to change its name) has a wonderful permanent exhibition.

vanessa // Posted 5 October 2008 at 12:22 am

Tom, if you ring or e-mail the museum in Colombes, google the name as given in the article, the curator will e-mail you Le jour des rameaux

Caroline // Posted 5 October 2008 at 5:24 pm

I have found one picture by Meurent online, on V R Main’s own website (which doesn’t seem to be picked up by Google) here.

tom hulley // Posted 6 October 2008 at 11:49 am

Thanks, Caroline. Lovely picture and very interesting website too. She looks like a person in her own painting and a sticker in Manet’s!

vanessa // Posted 19 October 2008 at 9:54 pm

In response to Jeniffer: I also see the painting as feminist since the figure refuses to be objectified by the (male) spectator’s gaze. Her challenging, provocative stare, negotiates her positions as a subject of her own story, rather than an object of someone else’s.

Also, I have just read the novel A Woman with No Clothes On and loved it. I really recommend it.

Ellie K // Posted 6 May 2010 at 1:15 am


Just wanted to let you know that you have a broken link in the comments section to your Oct 2008 article on Edouard Manet’s colleague and more-than-muse Victorine Meurent. I have the correct links for you at the end of this comment.

Just last week, I got into a discussion, a friendly one, over the masculinist point of view in turn of the century modern art, and we discussed “Dejeuner” which I actually feel is quite different from the Odalisque-style pose of Olympia and “naked women with clothed men” type art of that time.

So I was trying to find an image on the internet of the 2004 rediscovery of Meurent’s only surviving painting, came to your blog, and found the link to VR Main’s book “A Woman with No Clothes On”. Problem was that the link to page 13 doesn’t work anymore.

Here’s the page with the image:

Here is the image itself from the page:

if you want to repair @Caroline’s broken link, although it is in the comments section.

The topic of Meurent as an artist of the Societe and not mere model or plaything is still alive and well, discussed on WordPress. I have my own little theory: I wouldn’t be surprised if she were the actual artist responsible for Manet’s paintings, literally. But that is conjecture, easily disproved I suspect, using documents from that time.

Anyway, if you want to see the discussion about Meurent, let me know and I’ll give you the link to the blog. It isn’t mine, I’m a statistician and info security type, but I’ve been reading the comment thread in the art professional’s blog. However, I won’t post it here, as I don’t want to clutter up your comments with spammy links.

Hope this isn’t clutter too… It was well-intentioned, as I found your article very helpful in ID’ing the “Le Jour des Rameaux” by Meurent, now in Colombe’s Muni Art Museum.

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