Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Whatever Happened to Victorine Meurent?

A page from the amazing
"Whatever Happened to Victorine Meurent?"
Read about the comic's artist, Victoria Morris,
at her blog here.
So, I am more or less fully recovered from my bout with the flu, and apart from a terrible coughing fit I experienced while teaching last night, I am again a fully functioning human being. And I have to say: what a delightful thing that is.

Until you're sick, you forget how fantastic it is to breathe through your nose. No, don't laugh. I'm very serious about that. I really dislike being a mouth-breather. It's behavior *affecting a British accent* unbecoming a lady. Ha!

What's this on the left, you ask? Only something totally awesome I found here: Whatever Happened to Victorine Meurent? It's a comic (this is page three, on the left, which details Victorine's early life).

Who is Victorine Meurent, you ask? Only Manet's most enchanting model. And I say enchanting because the girl had some incredible self-possession.

Whether art history likes it or not, Victorine Meurent has become one of Western art's most iconic female figures, despite the fact that this same figure was ridiculed by critics in the worst possible terms when it went on display (in painted form) in the 1870s. But who hasn't somewhere seen Le dejeuner sur l'herbe, where Victorine levels her gaze at the viewer in a way that indicates--even if she were there in person--she would neither blink nor avert her eyes. And surely you've seen Olympia, where she poses as a naked courtesan presented with a gift of flowers from a customer by her maid. These are essential works in any survey of Western art, and sadly, Victorine has likely never gotten to appreciate one iota of her fame.

In fact, Victorine was a painter herself, one who was extremely talented. She exhibited repeatedly in the Paris Salon before even Manet enjoyed acceptance there. But her work was marginalized, perhaps because she was a woman or perhaps because recognition of her face and figure in Manet's paintings created a stir that eclipsed her own professional efforts. By 1879, she had been shut out of Manet's circle because her tendency towards free love incited violent jealousies among the men (I'm sure retrospective telling has toned down the scandal, and at the time, the gossip and examples of wounded pride were much more dramatic).

The comic (again, whose page three is visible above) gives a visual history of Victorine's life, and the author (whose name I haven't been able to find...Who are you? I'd love to give you credit because what you've done is totally wonderful!) has done some amazing excavations to fill in the long informational gaps that exist in Victorine's biography.

Victorine's GLBTQ encyclopedia entry, which I also gleaned from the comic's bibliographic page, indicates that in the early 1890s, she was the "intimate friend" of a courtesan named Marie Pellegrin, but had also turned to alcoholism. Yet, she continued to paint into the early 1900s and was still listed among professional artists. Then, she lived in the suburbs of Paris with a woman named Marie Dufour, a secretary and piano teacher.

Really, period critics, even many art historians have consistently given Victorine a raw deal. I am glad to see that she is not forgotten. She is a kind of hero to me, in the same way that my favorite chain-smoking, baggy-eyed male intellectuals are. She simply was, and although I'm absolutely certain I don't know the whole story behind Victorine's emotional life, she never apologized for being Victorine that I know of. And this is something to celebrate. It really is, since pretty often, life can be tough.

When I was in graduate school, I focused on the German Modernists and my boy George Grosz (whom I realized, sort of looks like Michael...hmmm...coincidence? I don't know.), but I was also lured by the Impressionists....not so much by their painting, but by their milieu: the theater crowds; the demimonde; the horse races, the absinthe, the flamboyant and disgusting beauty of the prostitutes. All of this fascinated me. Still, the frothy atmosphere Monet offered and the ballerina tulle Degas often choked me with made Impressionism somehow less potent than the angry absurdism of the Dadaists or the outright emotionalism of the Expressionists (okay and I dug the Post-Impressionists, too, but I won't get all the swank terms out of my tackle box right now *closing the lid*).

Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model & Her Own DesireAnyway, anyway, this, this is a really good book. I read it in graduate school: Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model & Her Own Desire. Eunice Lipton goes over to Europe and finds primary source documents in her atttempt to trace the path of Victorine. There's some self-revelation there and some "navel-gazing", but most importantly, Victorine begins to come to life again. 
It is sad that so little information still exists on Victorine. Even her paintings are largely lost, with the exception of one that sold for around $5,000 in the 1930s. Not a bad price, given that it was the beginning of the Depression. Still, no one can account for her work now, at least to my knowledge. I hope very much that a few of these paintings still exist and are just quietly waiting to re-emerge somewhere on one side of the big pond or the other.


  1. Oh, hey! I made this comic a couple of years ago for my junior level comics class at SAIC. I'm glad to see people finding it and enjoying it as a work of reference! (Ugh, just one more go at the art, right? Also the page constraints were brutal - 32 pages was probably too much to chew off for this one class, but I still wish I had another three or four.)

    Personally, part of the reason I wrote it was because Eunice Lipton's book was the primary source for Victorine info in English and I just don't think it's very good. Too much navel-gazing and projection by the author for a work of art history.

    On the other hand, if you have 80 bucks you can order a copy of Margaret Siebert's 1988 art history dissertation on Victorine. (Or, if I can find my copy, I can email it to you. I still have the extensive notes I took somewhere.)

    Lipton leaned VERY heavily on this for her book, but the Siebert's very worth a read. It's something like 200 pages, and she gets into a lot of detective work tracking down Meurent's secondary and tertiary modeling work. (Meurent continued to model well into her fifties for a number of less famous Parisian artists as well as the infamous Toulouse-Lautrec.)

    Oddly, while/since I wrote this there was a resurgence of interest in Victorine as a person and at least three books have come out since then. 'Madamoiselle Victorine' is a frippy Historical Romance which I thought dulled down a lot of what makes Victorine interesting. VR Main also wrote a historical novel called 'A Woman With No Clothes On', and this got decent press but I didn't read it.

    There is also a filmmaker in Paris who has written a book in French. Forgetting his name right now, but he was the guy who finally tracked down her only (known) surviving painting.

    After this long ramble, let me know if you have further questions. You can email me at tori[at]anbaric[dot]com, and again, thanks for reading and enjoying my work.

  2. Hello, Tori! Thank you *SO* much for posting here! I was hoping to find out who you are--your work is just amazing! Had you done any additional work after the class had concluded?

    Yes, definitely. I also felt that Lipton's book used Victorine's life as a vehicle to discover and affirm her own identity--a little too much. In graduate school, I heard about Margaret Siebert's work, but I hadn't been able to find it. Now I'm going to go on a scavenger hunt to and see if I can locate it--because it this is what Lipton relied on, then it offers more of what I'm really looking for: more of the real Victorine!
    Thank you again so much!! :-D I'll add an additional link to your livejournal page just under the image.

  3. I made a mini comic in 2009 called 'Bird Poo' which collects some shorter comics. I am also in a limited edition book called 'Drunk: A Comic About Bar Stories' which I think is technically out of print but if you ask around you could probably get a copy. (I have some author's copies but they're in Las Vegas so it would take some serious work for me to get it.)

    Some of it is still accessible on anbaric.com/comics.htm I think. I recently redid the website as a tumblr and haven't reposted all the old content yet.

    The Siebert dissertation is at ProQuest Diss. Services. #8625285. It's listed as 35 bucks for a PDF, which is funny because I recall paying a lot more. There are also unbound and bound copies available there.

    For example, I believe it's Siebert's diss. which discusses this picture of Victorine in her middle years: http://www.musees-haute-normandie.fr/objet.php3?lang=en&idrub=95&id_article=3991

    Anyway, I'm really happy to have found this blogpost! I will blather about my work and about Victorine at any old time. Heh.