Victorine Meurent, the Most Famous Face and Body of the Nineteenth Century - PART II


The fact was that men had all the mobility in society during this time. They could go anywhere they desired, and could do whatever they desired. this was not the case for women, particularly respectable women. Women were objects for men’s desires or just a word.

Of course, the public recognized Manet’s model, she was Mlle. Meurent, the demimondaine (prostitute) and they certainly didn’t like being confronted by her impudent gaze. Victorine Meurent modeled for Manet’s Olympia and made her debut into a society who advocated the highest moral character but had an appetite for every manner of debauchery, decadence and vice.

France was under siege from within its borders by one whose appetite for power and vice was unimaginable. When Napoleon lll became president of France he immediately began his relentless pursuit to change the law that would prohibit him from becoming Emperor. Unable to convince the legislature to change the law, Napoleon began a coup d’etat and overthrew the French Government. The carnage that took place in the streets of Paris was beyond comprehension. Scholars have described Napoleon as quite a paradox. On the one hand, he redesigned and reconstructed the entire center of Paris. An entire network of sewers, canals and railroads were built during this time. Millionaires were made overnight and a materialistic, pleasure seeking society was born. On the other hand, Napoleon’s massacre stained the streets of Paris with blood. While the aristocracy lived in excessive luxury, the poor sank deeper into an abyss of poverty and misery., This was an age of political and social turmoil, but it was also an age in which a confluence of great artists created their masterpieces. Creativity was at a crescendo during the Second Empire, but the society as a whole lived on a precipice of uncertainty. For example, Flaubert was prosecuted by the Empire and later acquitted for writing Madame Bovary. Baudelaire was also prosecuted for Fleurs du Mal, and the Empress of France offered to pay his fine. Wagner, writer-composer, and German exile, came to Paris hoping to find refuge and acceptance for his music and was viciously ridiculed by the press and society.. It was also during this moment in history that Manet painted Olympia.
Edouard Manet (1832-1863) was born into an aristocratic family, and was a nineteen year old art student under the tutelage of Thomas Couture when he witnessed Napoleon’s massacre. Manet was caught in the middle of one of the most devastatingly cruel and brilliantly creative moments in the history of France. This was the Paris of Manet’s time, and he wanted to express it in his paintings. He also wanted his work to be received favorably. However, this was not to be. Manet found himself in a whirlwind of public disdain and hostility for his new art form. In fact, it was Manet’s unconventional treatment of traditional subjects that would be the catalyst that would steer art into the modern age.

The ‘Ecole des Beaux Arts influence in perpetuating redundant mythological and classical paintings had reached a saturation point in art. Manet was determined to be an artist in his own time. So her stepped outside the mainstream and dared to be a modern painter. His subject of choice was the French middle-class. The vehicle he would use to accomplish this new vision would be Victorine Meurent. She was the model for the most famous and controversial painting of the nineteenth century. Through Manet’s art a future generation of artists would change the way painting was perceived forever. This group of avant grade artists would be known as the Impressionists.

Although Manet maintained close contact with the impressionists, his predilection for strong black and white contrasts and his feeling for clear outlines kept him outside the mainstream of impressionism. Manet was a realist painter with a new bent. His new expressive form was applied to an old subject drawn from the annals of history. Furthermore, Manet thought the critics would not only recognize this, but would think him a true genius for his new interpretation. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The outrage and condemnation Olympia received from the Parisian audience was devastating. The public was on the verge of destroying Olympia. The painting had captured such negative response from the audience that the French government allocated two uniformed guards to oversee its protection. Why was this society so offended by Olympia, to the point of extreme violence and viciousness? Was it the painting method that Manet used or was it his choice of subject?

First of all, Manet conceived a painting as a flat surface covered with pigment, a concept purposely intended by the artist as a device to draw attention to the physical process of painting itself. It wasn’t that Manet was unconcerned with subject matter, quite the contrary, it was a point of departure for him. Secondly, Manet’s subject was a candid presentation of a contemporary Parisian courtesan posing naked on her bed. Manet extracted his subject from Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino (c1538, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), Pl. 3

However, he cleverly altered Titian’s masterpiece to reflect his own time. Unfortunately, the public was not impressed with Manet’s homage to Titian’s  masterpiece. The public was furious!

Manet’s modernity lies partly in his technique as well as his interpretation of the subject. He used suggestive symbols, and bright color patches without any graded transitions of modeling. . For instance, Olympia is adorned with an exotic flower in her hair and is wearing a velvet ribbon around her neck; drawing attention to her feminine allure. She is nude but wears a bracelet and earrings. The satin slipper dangles suggestively from her foot. At her feet is a black cat with an arched back that appears both threatening and mysterious. It has also been suggested by scholars that the cat symbolizes promiscuity. The black maid bearing a bouquet of flowers for her mistress seems to imply that this is a gift from a suitor anticipating a sexual liaison. . These were the ingredients that went into creating Olympia; the recipe as seen from a masculine point of view. This was what made Manet’s painting modern. Manet’s painting was on display for the masculine gender to languish over, to gaze upon, to ogle. In other words, men had the freedom to be a voyeur. . This is what the Parisian public found so shocking about Manet’s Olympia, he was confronting them with their own vices. Furthermore, it was not only his use of sensuously suggestive props, but Victorine Meurent, a well known courtesan, lying upon her bed defiantly gazing back at them. It was as though the viewer were in the same room with her. She was naked and comfortably so. This was not some innocent nymph regurgitated from antiquity. This was a real modern Parisian courtesan who was fully aware of her sexuality, and enjoying the confrontation completely. She was brazenly flaunting her beauty and her nakedness before the world. This was Manet’s narrative on modern life. The concept was rooted in a traditional masterpiece, but its content was very modern. Who was this mysterious woman, the real Olympia?

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