Victorine Meurent, The Most Famous Face and Body of the Nineteenth Century- Part IV

Close up of Victorine Meurent, painting by Edouard Manet

Part IV

Art historian and researcher of Victorine Meurent, Eunice Lipton, states that after careful observation of the Tabarant manuscript she concluded that some of the information about Victorine may have been slanted by him. Lipton says that, “Tabarant was obsessed with Meurent. Nevertheless, some of the information seems to verify what many other said of her. For instance, Tabarant described her as, “moody and the kind of person who by nature excited commentary”…he also quotes Manet’s stepson Leon Koella Leenhoff as saying, “when she wasn’t degraded by alcohol, she had immense charm; she was extremely alluring… Leenhoff tells of seeing her at another time and she was unrecognizable, she looked deathly…only her breasts looked the same” Another account of Victorie came from Gauthier-Lathuille who saw her at the 1889 World’s Fair. He said that “she was ‘on the avenue de Suffen. She was seated on the ground, leaning against a wall, strumming a guitar. I didn’t recognize her for a long time, and then I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was dressed in rags, her hair was white, she was very old’.” Lipton states that Victorine was only forty-five at this time. Another account from the manuscript comes from the artist Suzanne Valadon who locates her first vision of Meurent between 1885 and 1886, and stated that, “she was a painter who had formerly posed for painters. Everybody knew her, ‘Here La Glu, a {a nickname given to Victorine that means sticky fingers} they’d say’…I see her again, very straight, dressed in light colors, not at all showy. She was said to be proud and not talkative…It was in 1886 that she could be seen in the evenings at the Elysees-Monmartre as a-called artist.
Obviously there has been a great deal of conflicting information about Victorine over the years. Unfortunately there was very little written about her, and most likely a lot of it probably wasn’t true. She was made famous by Manet, One can only suspect that much about her life was exaggerated and possibly envied.

After the public rage about Olympia died down her personal life was of little consequence to the avant-garde artists or critics. In a sense the joke is on all of them. She had her moment of fame, and it has lasted more than a hundred years. If Manet had chosen to paint Olympia in the accepted Renaissance style, he would have been just another artist of the nineteenth century, but he didn’t, and what he captured on canvas caught the world by absolute surprise. Manet’s Olympia remains even to this day a fascinating topic of scholars, “Olympia has become one of the venerable icons of modernism.”

Edouard Manet by Fantin-Latour

Manet died April 30, 1883 of complications from syphllis, one of the most dreaded diseases during the nineteenth century. He never knew that his most controversial painting would become one of the national treasures of France.
A strange irony is that Olympia was never sold. When France was under attack by the Prussians in 1870 Manet moved his paintings to a neighbor’s cellar for safe keeping. When he retrieved it two years later he set the price for Olympia at 20,000 francs, which converts to about ten thousand American dollars. There were no buyers and so the infamous work remained in his atelier until his death.

In late 1888, seven years after Edouard Manet’s untimely death, John Singer Sargent advised his friend Claude Monet that Suzanne Manet was experiencing serious financial problems, and she was contemplating selling Olympia to an American. Monet didn’t want to see Manet’s masterpiece leave France so he and many other of Manet’s friends collectively raised 20,000 francs to give Suzanne and then presented the painting to the Louvre. The lists of friends and supporters was very impressive: Degas, Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Mallarme’, Chabrier, and Caillebotte, to name a few. They raised the money for Manet’s widow and Monet began the difficult task of convincing the officials to hang the painting in the Louvre. This is what Monet wrote of Public Instruction and Fine Arts in 1880.

I have the honor of offering to the state Edouard Manet’s Olympia…Not only did he play an important individual part, he was also the representative of a great and fruitful evolution. It thus appears impossible to us that such a work does not belong in our national collections, that the master is denied entrance where his pupils have already been admitted.

Although the ministry accepted Monet’s proposal Olympia could not be hung in the Louvre at that time. There was a rule stating that an artist had to be dead for ten years before his works could be hung in the museum. So Olympia was hung in the Musee’ du Luxembourg for the next three years. When the national cultural authorities met in1893 to review the placement of Olympia, they decided that she was eligible but not worthy to be hung in the Louvre. It was not until George Clemenceu an old friend and patron of Manet became the premier of France that things changed, Monet once again intervened on Olympia’s behalf and asked Clemenceau to move the painting to the Louvre. The premier gave an order and in 1907 Olympia made her way to the Louvre by taxi. However, this was not to be her final resting place. She now resides in the Musee’ d’Orsay, a redesigned railroad station. Olympia is in an almost subterranean chamber, where the only light is electric….Olympia hangs in a corner, next to Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola. The painting has begun to show signs of deterioration. A web of small cracks streak across her right breast and right thigh. It seems ironic that once this painting was nearly destroyed by an outraged public, and now after decades of verbal abuse against Olympia, time my be her worst enemy,

Finally in 1983 the French authorities honored Olympia with their highest compliment when they sent just about all of Manet’s works to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for an exhibition commemorating the hundredth anniversary of his death, but they would not send Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, or the mysterious Olympia that Edouard Manet had given immortality. 

Victorine Meurent, Le jour des rameaux (Palm Sunday), 1885?.
This seems to be the only painting by Victorine Meurent that is left. Besides the fact that she had been Edouard Manet’s favourite model and also worked as such for Edgar Degas, Alfred Stevens, Toulouse-Lautrec and others, she also had a painter’s career. She started painting in the 1870’s and exhibited regularly in the “Salon”, sometimes together with Manet. This work shows that she didn’t follow the footsteps of the impressionists, but rather preferred the academic style. It may have been one of the reasons why she and Manet gradually became alienated.


1 Lipton, Eunice. Alias, Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire, New York: Meridian, 1994. p-41.
2 Reff, Theodore. Manet: Olympia. New York: Viking Press, 1977. p-43. 

3 Letter of May 1865; cited A. Tabrant, Manet et ses oeuvres, Paris, 1947. p-110.

4 Reff, Theordore, Manet: Olympia. New York: Viking Press, 1977. p-44.

5 Lipton. p-59.

6 Friedrich, Otto. Olympia, Paris in the Age of Manet. New York:Simon & Schuster, 1992. p-25.

7 Pollock, Griselda. Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the History of Art. New York: Routledge, 1988. p-77.

8 Pollock, Griselda. p-71.

9 Friedrich. p-40-41.

10 Friedrich. p-42-43.

11 Friedrich. p-3.

12 Friedrich. p-17.

13 Reff. p-57.

14 Pollock. p-71.

15 Lipton. p-62.

16 Lipton. p-83.

17 Lipton. p-61.

18 Tabarant, Adolphe. L’Oeuvre. July 10, 1932. p-1. quoted from Eunice Lipton. p-104.

19 Lipton. p-105.

20 Friedrich. p-300-302.

21 Lipton. p-165.

22 Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1988. p-163..

23 Nochlin. p-158.

24 Friedrich. p-15.

25 Nochlin. p-164.

26 Nochlin. p-66.

27 Tabarant, Adolphe. “Celle qui fut l’Olympia de Manet,” unpublished manuscript (1949), p-39. quoted from Eunice Lipton. Alias Olympia. New York; Meridian, 1997. p-150.

28 Reff. p-43.

29 Friedrich. p-4.

30 Friedrich. p-305. This is quoted in Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet, however, Friedrich does not list a direct source for it, only a section titled, A Note of Sources.

31 Friedrich. p-306.

32 Friedrich. p-5.

33 Friedrich. p-31.

Works Cited

Friedrich, Otto. Paris in the Age of Manet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Lipton, Eunice. Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model and Her Own Desire. New York: Meridian, 1994.

Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row, 1998.

Pollock, Griselda. Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the History of Art. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Reff, Theodore. Manet's Olympia. New York: Viking, 1977.

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