For a woman, for any woman living in patriarchy, it is extraordinarily freeing to go back or forward into a time when love is not split from anger, when the universe of emotion returns as a world in which she can move freely, where she is not bedeviled by a split between good and bad women, one loving, the other angry - images of women that are surreal, that come from the unconscious of men.
Carol Gilligan (1936 - ), feminist, ethicist, psychologist
Biographers have offered varying interpretations of the life and work of Victorine Meurent, a talented painter and featured model for many Impressionist works, notably Edouard Manet's Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass. Meurent came from a family of artisans and had formal training throughout the 19th century. Her talent is without question as the prestigious Salon selected her work for exhibition four times (1876, 1879, 1885, 1904). Yet two very different narratives have emerged about her life as a French woman and artist.
In one telling, Meurent was a prostitute, a drunk, a woman without money or high social standing and to earn enough money to live, she modeled. Many young women who modeled sold sexual services as well. This was not true of all models but the stigma persisted nevertheless. There were also rumors that she and Manet were lovers which probably contributed to her supposed notoriety. Additionally, her presence in Manet's scandalous Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass could have contributed to a life lived on the social periphery.
However, modern historians challenge the assumption that Meurent was a model and sexual partner to the older Manet. They note that Manet died from syphillis and since Meurent outlived him by over thirty years, it's unlikely they were ever lovers. Nor is it likely she was a social and professional outcast. She was an active artist for decades after his death. Though she might have experienced periods of financial hardship, she continued her training and showing her work well into the twentieth century. In 1903 she was even given a prestigious membership in the Société des Artistes Français.
The ending of the relationship with Manet in the 1870's is likely due to Manet's professional jealousy, coinciding with Meurent's commencement of formal training at the same time. A mixture of desire and jealousy shows up in other personal relationships Manet had with female Impressionists, notably Berthe Morisot. To his credit, at one point Manet offered Meurent an additional financial stipend for the modeling work she had done in his most successful works. She declined the offer, asking to keep the option open when she could no longer model and her source of income less secure. By the 1880's, she had fallen on hard times. One narrative suggests that a series of love affairs ended badly and made her the target of unflattering gossip. As a result, Manet and his circle shunned her. However, Meurent's own words in a letter to Manet's widow shortly after Manet's death describe something very different. She wrote that with age her modeling work had fallen off. She was now taking care of her mother and her own health was not good. She requested the money that Manet had promised from the proceeds of paintings that Mme Manet was now arranging to sell. Mme. Manet never replied.
Only one painting of Meurent's own work has survived: Le jour des rameaux/Palm Sunday (1885), resurfacing in 2004 and now on exhibition in the Colombes History Museum outside Paris. Her most enduring visual identity, therefore, is the one that Manet created. Until recently biographers have portrayed her, like many female artists of the nineteenth century, as the object of the artist rather than the artist herself. However, as more modern examinations of her life emerge, absent late 19th century stereotypes of prostitutes and drunks, we discover a complex and more faithful portrait of an individual, one whose life as a French woman and talented artist is slowly but surely being restored.