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Who was Olympia?

by Vaughan Allen

Olympia

An instantly recognisable woman’s face appeared in two notorious paintings by 19th-century French artist Edouard Manet – but who was she? In Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass, 1862-3) a naked woman nonchalantly disports herself next to two men: the artist’s future brother-in-law Ferdinand Leenhoff, and a hybrid of his brothers Eugène and Gustave. Unperturbed by their being fully dressed, the woman turns to meet the viewers’ gaze with a disconcertingly blank stare. This ground-breaking work so enraged some visitors to the 1863 Salon des Refusés they actually struck the canvas with canes or umbrellas.
Similar condemnation and disgust met his portrayal of the same woman two years later, lounging provocatively as a flagrant demi mondaine, her maid alongside bearing an admirer’s bouquet. With left-hand strategically placed to preserve a modicum of propriety, the painting was – surprisingly – accepted by the official Salon judges, but two attendants were required to prevent physical attack. Entitled Olympia, the figure, naked apart from some adornments of the courtesans’ trade, again confronts the spectators’ gaze with a look of studied sang froid. So who was this siren of the salons?
Manet had probably first encountered the woman who became his favourite model in the atelier of Thomas Couture for whom she modelled at the age of 16. Although he may have noticed her in the street carrying her guitar, which, along with the violin, she played well enough to give lessons. Not a conventional beauty, Manet was nonetheless drawn to her “unusual” look and striking ginger coloured hair. She was first painted by him as The Street Singer early in 1862.
Victorine-Louise Meurent was born on February 18, 1844 into a family of artisans. Her father was a ciseleur-patinator who worked with his sculptor brother finishing bronze statuary and ornaments. Victorine’s strict, unfeeling mother ran a millinery-laundry shop near the Folie-Mericourt. Disliking the presence of her only child on the premises, Victorine accompanied her mean-tempered father and kindly uncle to their places of work, which sometimes included Couture’s studio. Always clad in overalls, she occasionally stood-in for figures of boys in his paintings until she started convent school aged seven. As she grew up Victorine developed a marked independent streak and tomboy personality, plus a noticeable lack of interest in boys. This latter feature suited her mother who, witnessing the downfall of so many youthful customers, equated premature pregnancy with ruination. Responding to Victorine’s shrewd, wilful, androgynous persona, Manet painted her in 1862 in the costume of an espada (swordsman who delivers the coup de grace in the bullring ). In 1866 she appeared again as The Fifer, a military flute-playing boy, then another four times before her last sitting in Gare Saint Lazare in 1873. Meurent also posed for Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Puvis de Chavannes, and Belgian artist-teacher Alfred Stevens with whom it was suggested she was romantically involved, although no concrete evidence for this exists.
However, Victorine Meurent was not content merely to appear in others’ paintings, because she held artistic aspirations of her own. Although the Ecole des Beaux-Arts didn’t admit women until 1897, several of the school’s professors did provide tuition in their studios. One such was Couture, who had admitted Victorine for informal drawing lessons while still a teenager. Eschewing the avant garde, Victorine was more comfortable with the academic techniques of portrait painter Etienne Leroy. His teaching enabled her to develop skills whereby her work was accepted at the official Salons of 1876, 1879, 1885, 1904, plus on two further occasions. She also studied under historical painter Tony Robert-Fleury at the Academie Julian. He later assisted her induction into the Société des Artistes Français, which he founded in 1903.
These successes helped Meurent earn a small living as a magazine illustrator and garner sales of her paintings in restaurants and cafés where she sang and played guitar. During this time she took an apartment in Montmartre at Rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière, a year later moving closer to establishments such as Le Souris, Le Hanneton and Le Rat Mort along the Boulevard de Clichy, which stayed open throughout the day and night where she’d meet her lover Janine, a milliner and gambler who frequented the races at Longchamp. They regularly ate at Chez Coquet’s, where women of similar Sapphic persuasion dined, including neighbours Sarah Bernhardt and her partner Louise Abbema.
After Meurent’s father died in the early 1880s, his wife’s failing health led to the closure of the Rue Popincourt shop and her relocation to the suburb of Asnières, where Victorine was obliged to make frequent supportive visits. The straitened financial circumstances that resulted compelled her to act upon Manet’s supposed pledge to ensure her a dividend from the sale of any paintings for which she had modelled. Preoccupied with the aftermath of her husband’s death in 1883, Madame Manet didn’t respond to Meurent’s written overture. Throughout the 1880s she continued with her magazine illustration, but in the following decade this began to diminish. After Meurent’s possessive erratic lover Janine’s departure, Victorine fell into a temporary decline. However, she did receive some portrait commissions from well-off Montmartre shopkeepers, thoughtfully passed on by former teacher Etienne Leroy. The publicity surrounding the posthumous auction of Manet’s Olympia also generated interest in her work and Tony Robert-Fleury helped boost her income with the occasional financial ‘donation’.
It was at this time that her ex-drinking partner Toulouse Lautrec regularly took male friends to 69 Rue Douai in Montmartre under the porch of an old house in which he’d once lived, up five flights of stairs to an attic door. His knock was answered by a diminutive, wrinkled ginger-haired woman, whereupon Lautrec, with his penchant for redheads, raised his hat and presented her with a bouquet of flowers, box of bon bons (invariably containing a generous gratuity) along with the salutation “may I introduce the beautiful Olympia of Manet”.
With his continued support and that of Robert-Fleury, Victorine secured employment as a theatre usher, an important position in fin de siècle Paris. There she met fellow usher and piano teacher Marie Dufour with whom she entered into a loving relationship. After acceptance of her entry to the Paris Salon in 1904 and at Marie’s suggestion, two years later they decided upon a move to Colombe, an outer suburb popular with retired artists, where they purchased the house at 22 Rue Clara-Lemoine. Enjoying this pleasant semi-rural locale, Victorine could paint in peace whilst Marie took secretarial work and gave piano lessons. Meurent’s membership of the Société des Artistes Français entitled her to financial assistance, instalments of which were granted in 1909 and during WW1. The two women lived a pleasant retirement together until Victorine died on March 17, 1927.
Though there were periods of her life given over to excess, Meurent distinguished herself as a woman ahead of her time. Refusing to accept a place in society circumscribed by her gender and humble beginnings, she abjured the usual passive role of artist’s model or grisette to become a successful painter in her own right. By doing so she identified with fellow feminist contemporaries such as Louise Michel, Rosa Bonheur and rival Suzanne Valadon, thereby forging a link between them and 18th-century revolutionary France’s proto-feminists Pauline Léon, Théroigne de Méricourt and even modern inheritors like Simone de Beauvoir and Antoinette Fouque. While Victorine Meurent may not have been a great artist, she certainly made the most of the talent she did possess. And like artists of our own time such as Tracey Emin, overcame adversity and scandal to achieve both artistic prominence and respectability. Likewise, through determination and the good fortune which often accompanies a strong personality, went on to find recognition within an established society of her peers.
Sadly, none of her works were thought to have survived, yet in 2004 an accomplished portrait of a young girl holding a palm sprig came to light from the 1880s called Le Jour de Rameaux (Palm Sunday). Having been restored it now proudly hangs in the ‘Musée Municipal d’Art et d’Histoire de Colombes.

Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020

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John Link
20/09/2020 6:30 am

A great footnote to a great painting.

Miklos Legrady
15/09/2020 8:34 pm

What a beautiful story.

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