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

Victorine Meurent, the Most Famous Face and Body of the Nineteenth Century, by Patricia Reed.


Victorine Meurent was the most famous face and body of the nineteenth century. Although she modeled for Edgar Degas. Puvis de Chavennes, and Alfred Stevens, her most famous modeling role was for Edouard Manet’s Olympia, (1862-63), Oil on canvas, (51.2”x74.8 in), Musee’d’Osay. Pl.1

Olympia, Edouard Manet, Edouard Manet, (1862-63), Oil on canvas, (51.2"x74.8"), Musee'd'Orsay 

It is uncertain why Manet waited to exhibit Olympia two years after its completion at the official Salon in 1865. Theodore Reff suggests the only indication of Manet’s intentions comes from two of his friends, Duet and Proust, who indicate that Manet was quite confident “in the directness of his vision and technique- ‘I render as simply as possible the things I see. What could be more naive than Olympia?’…and that he was genuinely surprised when his own works were attacked while the Renaissance ones they followed closely were not.” It would seem that Manet was not only confident but quite egotistical as well, particularly, when he had received such a scathing review at the Salon in 1863 for his painting entitled Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862), Musee’d’Orsay, Paris). (Pl.2).

(Pl 2), Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862), Musee’d’Orsay, Oil on Canvas, (81.9 × 103.9 in).

However, the Salon was a yearly event in which serious artists submitted their works to be juried for exhibition and their artistic reputation was on-the-line. It was also a social event and thousands of Parisians from different social backgrounds would attend. 

The public response to Olympia was absolute outrage! The barrage of insults directed toward Manet’s painting profoundly affected him. Seeking moral support, he drafted a letter to his friend Baudelaire expressing his frustration. ‘I could wish you were here…the insults pour down on me like hail. I should so much like to have your opinion of my paintings, for all this outcry irritates me, and it is evident that someone or other is at fault.’ Manet obviously was not expecting such an outcry of condemnation against his work. Certainly this was not the first painting of a nude Venus exhibited at the Salon. Why then, did Manet’s Olympia both fascinate and repulse the Parisian audience? Why was this same audience unable to come to terms with her nudity? More specifically, who was this intriguing woman who seems to gaze defiantly at her audience?

Victorine Meurent was a very resourceful female and independent females were not in vogue during the mid-nineteenth century. As a matter of fact, this was the era of a very high-minded Victorian society that practiced male superiority. This was a patriarchal society that perpetuated the idea that females were delicate creatures who were to be admired and loved but were not intellectual equals. For example, here is an excerpt from what the poet Charles Baudelaire had to say about the feminine gender in an article titles, “The painter of modern life” written for Le Figaro in 1863.

Woman is for the artist in general…far more than just the female of man. Rather she is divinity, a star…a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of nature, condemned into a single being; an object of keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer to its contemplator. She is an idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching…Everything that adorns women that serves to show off her beauty is of herself…

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