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

Mademoiselle V. . . in the Costume of an Espada, 1862, by Eduoard Manet

Victorine Meurent was born February 19, 1844, baptized February 19, 1844 at the Église Sainte-Élisabeth, Paris, she died in 1927. Certainly, the most famous part she would play in history would be that of Manet’s temptress. As a woman and as an artist she crossed the delicate social boundaries of class and gender. Vicotrine was a well known courtesan, who came from very humble beginnings. Her uncle was a sculptor and her father was a Ciseleur, one who finishes sculpture, and her mother did laundry. . It is understandable that Mlle. Meurent was interested producing art as well as modeling for her male counterparts. She was associated with art from her childhood. However, because she was not born into a more affluent family her social standing was, for the most part, that of a woman who sold her body for art and for pleasure to the anointed ones (male artists). Although she was socially unacceptable by the gentry class, and artistically unacceptable because of them too, she continued to pursue her goal to become an artist. This was not an easy task for Victorine. Opportunities were very limited for middle-class women who wanted to pursue a career in art, and unthinkable for a woman of her station in life. To be anything at all above her courtesan-model status would take very resourceful invention. First of all, during the mid-nineteenth century women were not permitted to attend the ‘Ecole des Beaux Arts, and although some Beaux Arts professors opened studios to women around the 1860’s, they were certainly not for working-class women like Victorine. These classes were for ladies, the ones who could afford them. Working-class women entered the hallowed halls of the academies as models or cleaning women. They certainly didn’t have the luxury of studying art. 

Two unofficial articles document Victorine as a model and as an artist. The first was an essay written by Jacques Goedorp in 1867, and states that she was a model for Thomas Couture in the early 1860’s, and that Couture had a separate studio for women. The second article was published in 1932 by Adolphe Tabarant, and portrayed Victorine as, “ a model who dabbled in paint, who was a lush and promiscuous. . Tabarant also included in this article a copy of a painting by Norbert Goenuette dated 1890, and according to one historian it evokes a very disturbing picture of Victorine. In the painting Victorine is slumped over a table with one hand on a wine bottle and the other griping a guitar, and a monkey in a clown suit replaces the black cat. The figure, (Victorine) in the painting has been reduced to a “formless heap of humanity. . Goeneutte’s painting was the antithesis of Manet’s beautiful Olympia. The image of Victorine in this painting was Goeneutte’s interpretation of her, and whether she was actually a washed-up artist or model seems uncertain. Otto Friedrich, a writer on Manet, Paris and Olympia, shed a little more light on the mysterious Victorine after she seemed to slip into oblivion. He wrote that Victorine exhibited a painting at the Salon of 1879, entitled A Bourgeois Woman of Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century, and another painting at the Salon of 1885, entitled Palm Sunday. Friedrich says that the latter painting…”showed a young woman holding an armful of boxwood cuttings.” Unfortunately, Victorine’s paintings seem to have slipped into oblivion too. Friedrich points out that there seems to be a dark side to Victorine as well. According to his accounts she was an alcoholic and she had become quite disheveled looking as early as 1889. Furthermore, when Victorine was unable to get work painting portraits, in desperation she made copies of her painting A Bourgeois Woman of Nuremberg and Manet’s Olympia and tried to peddle them by telling everyone that she was the model in Manet’s painting. 

However, there are more positive accounts of Victorine’s life that contrast greatly with many scholars. Official documents confirm that she lived a long life, and at sometime in her career she was a fairly successful artist and had become a member of the Société des Artistes Français in 1903. She had been presented and accepted for membership by the director and founder of the Société, Tony-Robert Fleury, and another respected artist, Hermann-Leon. She also exhibited her work in the Société Salon the following year. She attended the Academie Julian from 1875-1876, and in 1906 she listed her profession as an artist-painter in a public document known as the État civil. In 1921, at the age of seventy-seven she continued to identify herself as an artist in the État civil. During the latter part of Victorine’s life she lived in a small artists community in Colombes. She was said to have lived there with Marie Dufour from 1906-1926. It has been speculated that they were lovers. She died in her eighties in 1927.

With all the documentation on Victorine Meurent as an artist, one would wonder why Adolphe Tabarant didn’t know that she lived a long and somewhat productive artistic life. Especially since he prided himself as the “know-all” of the art world during that time. He claimed to know every artist, as well as, what they were doing and with whom they were doing it, but he didn’t know that Victorine Meurent was an artist.

Tabarnt didn’t know that Victorine was alive, well, and painting up to 1927 because she did not belong to the same art world he knew and wrote about. She was not part of the avant-garde art. He could not know her artistic endeavors because from his a vantage point she was only a working-class courtesan who modeled for Manet’s great painting. It is unknown whether Victorine’s art was on the cutting-edge, and it is doubtful that it would have mattered one way or the other. It would not have mattered because women in general were not permitted to attend the art academies. The discrimination against women was “institutionally maintained in the world of art.” The social institution of the nineteenth century were responsible for defining what was acceptable or forbidden in various classes or groups of individuals. Discrimination against women was not necessarily individual, but rather societal and was reinforced and maintained by institutions such as, systems of patronage, religion, art, etc. France had the largest percentage of women artists during this time but none of them were considered professional painters. They could not attend the ‘Ecole des Beaux Arts which was absolutely necessary to achieve artistic success.

For example, during the mid-nineteenth century the Salon was the primary source for private and public commissions. 

Although some women achieved success during this time, scholars suggest it was because of their affiliation with male artists. One scholar concisely states that women were “deprived of encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards.” If they wanted to dabble in art as a hobby, that was okay, but to seriously consider art as a career was selfish, perhaps even threatening from a male perspective. Women were reared to regard marriage, children and home as primary objectives in life, not pursing a career. Therefore, it is no surprise that Victorine’s multiple career ambitions was in absolute conflict with the social system. She modeled for male artists, she pursued a career in art and she was a prostitute.

Is it any wonder her visage in Manet’s painting was defiant! She is openly and honestly defiant toward a system which thwarted all her options to have a respectable life and career. She may have had more mobility that the respectable middle-class women of her time but her mobility was very limited to the back streets, cafe’s, and brothels. In this respect she was like her male counter-part, in that she could move freely around the alleys of Paris, imbibe to her hearts content, but unlike him she could not leave the seedy side of life and return to respectability. Victorine could not cross the social boundaries of class. She survived the terrible quagmire of poverty with her natural resources; her wit, beauty, and her body. In fact, poverty would have been the determining cause which drove her to prostitution. Women born into poor families had little chance of earning wages that would keep them from starving, so they were essentially forced into selling their bodies in order to survive. The nineteenth century female who was poor had very few career options. Certainly a career in art would not have been a choice for any poor female. Therefore, the closest Victorine could come to being a participant in art was to be a model. As for Adolphe Tabarant, Victorine would only have been a beautiful courtesan who modeled for Manet, nothing more. Most likely, her interest in art would have been amusing to him and would have added to her mysterious charm.

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