In many of Edouard Manet’s paintings the focus is on a ginger-haired woman that, although not at all identical from picture to picture, turns out to be the same model. The nudes in Dejeuner sur L’Herbe and Olympia; the demure Young Lady in 1866, The Street Singer and The Gare St. Lazare; and even the boy in The Fifer are all Victorine Meurent.
Victorine Louse Meurent, despite being a famous artist’s model, was an artist in her own right, who exhibited repeatedly at the prestigious Paris Salon. Because Manet painted her as a courtesan or a demimondaine, viewers had the misconception that Victorine Meurent was a girl of the streets when in fact, she came from a family of artisans and aspired to an art career from an early age.
Born in 1844, Victorine’s father was patinator of bronzes and her mother a milliner. She started modeling at the age of sixteen in the studio of Thomas Couture. Couture also offered drawing classes for women and young Victorine may have developed her artistic talent at that time.
Victorine first modeled for Edouard Manet at age 18, posing for a painting entitled, The Street Singer. Manet was first drawn to Victorine when he saw her in the street carrying her guitar. Particularly noticeable for her petite stature and her red hair, she was given the nickname La Crevette, (The Shrimp) because of her smallness.
Victorine sang in cafes. She played guitar and the violin and gave lessons in both instruments. She also modeled for Manet’s friends, the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens with whom she had a romantic attachment, and Edgar Degas.
I can imagine that Victorine must have been quite notorious in Paris circles. When Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe was first exhibited at the 1863, the public’s response ranged from laughter to outright violence with more than one visitor expressing his outrage by striking out at the image. Regarding Olympia, as I have mentioned in previous posts, she was ridiculed as looking like a female gorilla with green and decaying flesh.
Manet continued to use Victorine as a model until the early 1870s, when she took up her art classes again and they parted ways. Victorine was drawn to the more academic style of painting to which Impressionist Manet was opposed.
In 1876 her paintings were selected to be exhibited at the Paris Salon, when Manet's work was not. Her entry Bourgeoise de Nuremberg au XVIe siècle, at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1879, hung in the same room Manet’s contribution that year. In total Victorine exhibited in the Salon six times.
Meurent continued to support herself through the 1880s by modeling for Norbert Goeneutte, an artist best known for his etchings, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but she appears to have fallen on hard times. In 1883 she wrote to Manet's widow, recalling to Madame Manet her late husband's promise to forward her with some money if he succeeded in selling the paintings for which she had posed. Madame Manet was not accommodating.
Despite the fact that in the 1890s Victorine could be found drinking heavily and trying to flog her drawings throughout Montmartre, she exhibited her art again in 1893 at the Palais de l’Industrie. In 1903 Meurent was admitted to the Société des Artistes Français. Candidates for this association needed the sponsorship of two members, and one of Victorine’s sponsors was the society's founder, Tony Robert-Fleury.
For the last twenty years of her life, Victorine shared a house in Colombes, a suburb of Paris, with a woman named Marie Dufour. Local census records indicate that Victorine called herself an artist.
Meurent died in 1927. After the death of her companion Dufour in 1930, the contents of the house were liquidated and neighbours recalled the last few contents of the house, including a violin and its case, being burnt on a bonfire.
Only one of Victorine’s works is known to survive, Le Jour des Rameaux or Palm Sunday was recovered in 2004 and now hangs in the Colombes History Museum. The location of most of Meurent's creations is unknown and may in fact be lost. A record of the sale of one of her paintings in 1930 was the last report of her works.
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