Dames Done Wrong E04: Resurrecting Victorine

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Welcome to Dames Done Wrong, where we handle misogyny, sexism and everyday douchebaggery throughout the ages. Most artists in museums might be male, but ladies rocked that paintbrush (or camera/chisel/etc.) JUST as hard. Whether the woman in question was murdered or simply overshadowed, whether her artwork got banned from the museum or maybe even stolen by the unfairer sex…you’ll read all the juicy details here.

Our fourth installment features the most elusive of French artists, Victorine Meurent. If that name rings a bell, it's probably because homegirl was Manet's favorite model. Forgotten to history is Victorine’s talent with a paintbrush. Victorine was featured in the Salons before Manet. In 1876, when Manet’s submission was barred, Meurent made the cut. In 1879, the two were featured in the same room of the exhibition. So why does only one of Victorine’s paintings remain? Could it be... sexism?

Male chauvinism in the art world? Who’d have thought?

You can visit Meurent’s only surviving work, Le Jour des Rameaux, in the Municipal Museum of Art and History in Colombes, France. The young woman depicted in all her pensive glory is probably gazing at the glass ceiling, pondering the preposterous nature of 19th century gender norms. 

Victorine’s intense gaze brought life to Manet’s paintings. She starred in Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, two of his most famous works, and captivated viewers with her quiet confidence. She morphed flawlessly from cocky female matador to a weary mother seeking one damn moment of peace and quiet. So did the talented model get credit for helping Manet rise from obscurity to stardom?

Unfortunately, fate (or rather, 19th century sexism) had other plans for Victorine’s reputation. When Luncheon on the Grass exhibited, Emperor Napoleon III called it disgusting. Crowds came in droves, appalled by Manet’s interpretation of the female nude. Husbands considered the work too vulgar for their wives’ delicate sensibilities. Viewers assumed that artist and model were sexually involved. The truth of the matter? Manet's early death of syphilis was a fate that Victorine did not share. Their relationship was probably just business, not the plot of a steamy romance novel.

Featured: Victorine not giving a crap about her hypersensitive critics.

The reaction to Olympia, exhibited in 1865, was even more explosive. For the first time, a painting necessitated guards to hold back the enraged crowds. Visitors held their umbrellas and canes close, intending to batter the work of art where it stood. What sympathy could a painted prostitute inspire, especially one so unapologetic? The audiences wanted their nudes demure, uncontroversial, and dainty. The press was similarly incensed. Writers called Victorine a “grotesque female gorilla,” indecent and wretched. Her figure was labeled undesirable, flat and bestial. Victorine’s reputation had soured, and her artistic career was forgotten.

Adolphe Tabarant, Manet’s biographer, successfully tarnished Victorine’s name for the next century. He considered her artworks wretched, and chalked her vacation to America down to her foolishness and sordid love affairs.

Artist Norbert Goeneutte painted Victorine as an alcoholic musician. Writers continuously assumed her dead by the early 1890s, wasting away in poverty and artistic failure. She was even described as a desperate prostitute, selling artworks to her patrons for a spare dime. Léon Leenhoff, son of Manet’s wife Suzanne, only fueled the rumors of Meurent’s degeneracy. She came calling in the winter of 1882-3. His intellectual assessment of the thirty-eight year old artist? “Only her breasts seemed unchanged.”

Was that necessary, Léon? Did we really need to hear about Victorine’s miraculous ta-tas?

In reality, Meurent lived to eighty-three, not fifty. She was far from a no-name artist, often landing her artworks in prestigious exhibitions despite steep competition. During the last couple decades of her life, she lived with the courtesan Marie Pellegrin, and the two assumedly shared a romantic relationship.

Meurent had her share of liars and haters, but Victorine wasn’t the type to let the infamy get her down. Her success as a model in no way diminished her mastery with a paintbrush, though she posed for big names like Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas. This was a woman who knew what she wanted, be it to model in the nude or rock the Salons with her masterpieces. What can we learn from Victorine Meurent? Have some fun, make some art, and brush off the slut-shaming naysayers.

By: Lara Heard

Lara Heard