Friday, December 5, 2014

Victorine Meurent: Manet's Modern Woman

Parisian painter Edouard Manet emerged from the realist tradition as one of the leaders of the French Modernist movement during the 19th century. Attempting to capture the everyday Parisian life, Manet was concerned with pushing boundaries and providing controversial images for his audience, especially when he painted women. As Manet was fascinated with the everyday life of ordinary people, he used models to recreate scenes he observed or imagined. One of his favorite female models was Victorine Meurent, who was also a painter. Because female artists were not generally successful in the late 1800s, Victorine used modeling for both a means of income and for exposure to other artists. Manet painted Victorine in a variety of settings appropriate to the emerging modernist tradition of his time. The various characters that Victorine Meurent inhabits in Manet’s paintings and her personal experience as a female painter explore the implications of modernist thought within the representation of women in 19th century Paris. Manet allowed the object viewed to view the viewer, resulting in a profoundly new interaction between a female subject and the viewer in which freedom of sexual and social identity exists. To some scholars, Victorine is regarded as an antihero of her time due to her consistent appearance in Manet’s provocative depictions of a contemporary woman. 

Victorine-Louise Meurent, Palm Sunday, around 1885

Oil on Canvas, Musée Municipal d'Art et d'Histoire de Colombes 

Victorine Meurent was born into a working class family in Paris in 1844. It is thought that her father worked as an engraver and her mother worked as a milliner. Though it was uncommon for women to become successful artists in the 1800s, she moved to Paris to pursue her career in art. Victorine was selected to exhibit several of her works in the competitive Salon; however, Palm Sunday is unique because it is the only surviving painting by Victorine Meurent. In this piece, she portrays a young girl holding a piece of a palm branch to signify Palm Sunday. While Victorine herself was unique as a female artist, this painting was received as a very respectable, ordinary work. 

Edouard Manet, Victorine Meurent, around 1862

Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

Thought to be Manet’s first painting of Victorine, this work presents a basic portrait of Manet’s favorite model. Victorine was not a society beauty; rather, she was generally regarded as simple and unimpressive. Her short height and red hair gave her the nickname La Crevette (the shrimp). However, Manet obviously was intrigued by this woman and her simple beauty. In Manet’s later works, he uses Victorine’s simplicity as a blank canvas for his portrayal of a modern woman.

Edouard Manet, The Railway, 1873

Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art 

The Railway is Manet’s last painting of Victorine. In this work, Manet’s interest with everyday life is clear. A woman sits at a train station with her child, though the woman pays no attention to her child. Rather, the woman’s direct gaze draws the viewer into the scene, allowing for a more personal relationship with the subject. This painting is more about the mother herself than the relationship she has with her daughter. This scene of a small moment of time with ordinary people in urban Paris is the essence of a 19th century modern picture. 

Edouard Manet, Street Singer, about 1862 

Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

This is the first time Manet used Victorine as a model. After viewing a woman leave a sleazy cafe, Manet was inspired to paint this observation. This scene is a snapshot of the everyday life that Manet wanted to capture. Her drab clothing and musical instrument tell us that this is a working woman who is from the lower class and unrefined. Women like this captured Manet’s attention because they were ordinary and showed the emergence of the role of working, independent women in Parisian culture. This approach to painting allows for the woman to retain her personhood and story within the current culture, departing from the academic style of biblical or mythological narrative.

Édouard Manet, Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of an Espada, 1862

Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.100.53 

In this life-size oil painting, Manet paints a lady in the guise of a Spanish matador. She stands prepared for action with an emotionless face and confrontational look that demands attention. Though she is clothed mostly in the traditional matador costume, the woman breaks from conventions as she wears unsuitable shoes, conceals her red curly hair with a purple scarf, and holds a pink cloth in her left hand. Manet places Victorine in a position where she is clearly the focal point and the subject of discussion, leaving the viewer to ask why a woman is in such a disguise, yet still reveals her gender. Through this piece, Manet offers a puzzling switch in gender roles which questions the traditions of the time.

Edouard Manet, Luncheon in the Grass, 1863

Oil on canvas, Musée D’Orsay 

The Luncheon on the Grass is a work that essentially proved its modernity by presenting frank nudity not as part of a historical or mythological narrative, but within the context of contemporary life. Particularly shocking was that the woman showed no shame at her compromising position, making no attempt to cover herself. Furthermore, the sense of viewer participation within this painting was quite provocative at the time of exhibition; it was uncommon for previous art to require such a direct and uncomfortable relationship between the viewer and the subject through confrontational body language or eye contact. 

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Oil on canvas, Musée D’Orsay 

Olympia is perhaps the climax of Manet’s series of socially challenging artworks, taking his previous nudes one step further. The picture portrays the unromantic reality of a truly contemporary subject. The traditional Venus has become a prostitute and is challenging the viewer with her direct gaze. This profanation of the idealized nude caused critics to react violently. However, in the words of historian T.J. Clark, Olympia “wasn’t a goddess or an angel or a shy bather caught off guard. She was a contemporary woman—unabashedly unclad, unmistakably allegorical.” Olympia was the culmination of Manet’s interest in modern life, his observation of the common woman, and his desire to challenge tradition. The nude is no longer an idealized woman, but a woman who is free to be seen as an individual and a participant in a modernizing society.

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