Victorine Meurent was around 16 when she first acted as an artistic muse for painters of 19th century London. She was a musical performer and practiced painting as a hobby. When she was 18 Manet beseeched the young woman to model for his works, later inspiring some of the most influential paintings in history. Meurent acted as a muse for several other prominent artists while performing music in small cafes in order to support herself and attend art school.
She attended Académie Julian, attempting to produce a more conventional style of art. Her first artistic exhibition was hosted in 1876 at the Salon, then was featured again in 1879, 1885 and 1904. In 1903 she was the first and only woman accepted into the prestigious Sociétés des Artistes Français. Another woman’s work was not accepted by the Sociétés des Artistes Français until 2010. Her work hung high above eye level and in a back room, a very inconsequential location for a featured artist. It was barely noticed.
During this time same time of success for Meurent, many of Manet’s works were being rejected by the art world. Ironically, today Manet’s works are artistic marvels, awed at and revered by esteemed museums and intensively studied by scholars.
Manet’s works featuring Meurent proved revolutionary for both Impressionism and feminism. One could argue his paintings inspired by Meurent were of the first female nude paintings that refused to depict women as a mythological or ethereal trope, but as a more realistic depiction of a young woman grappling with the realities of Victorian London.
In Manet’s Olympia (1863), Meurent is shown unabashedly nude, appearing almost disinterested as her servant presents her with an arrangement of flowers from whom we can assume is a male suitor. This scene alludes to the common roles and expectations of women from her time. However, Meurent takes a rebellious stand against what is expected of her through her refusal to engage in social customs. She defiantly rejects the flowers as a symbol of patriarchal life through her dispassionate response. This piece, as well as many others, is the reason for Manet’s fame and success. Victorine never asked for anything in return, not even a portion of the profits he received.
It was, at one time, popular belief among scholars that Meurent worked as a prostitute in order to support herself and died young, shortly after Manet’s last painting of her, as a teenage alcoholic. This is obviously extremely inaccurate.
Meurent lived until she was 83 years of age, in a secluded area of London and lived happily with her female lover after a fulfilling life as an artist who tested boundaries and mastered a beautiful craft.
I would argue that Meurent’s life, as well as all her accomplishments, have been hidden away not only because she was a woman, but also because she was a lesbian who didn’t behave as expected during the late Victorian 19th century. This rebellious aspect of Meurent’s personality is depicted in many of Manet’s paintings.
In his painting titled Street Singer from 1862 Meurent appears to briefly makes eye contact with the viewer as if she is in a hurry and glanced our direction for just a brief moment before departing a small shop to enter the bustling streets of London. Her dress is frayed at the hem and her hair is wildly unkempt. All these cultural signifiers within the painting point to a lower class, unrefined woman.
Many of the paintings she modeled for also show her nude, while maintaining eye contact with the audience. This act expresses a sentiment of blatant and audacious deficiency to the Victorian sex gender system that expected women to cover their skin as much as possible and repress their sexuality. Meurent was a complex woman, outcasted due to more than her mere distaste for social expectations. She was a lesbian woman who had many relations with women throughout her lifetime until she finally settled down in the London countryside with her partner.
Meurent’s own artwork is not only historically significant due to her success as an LGBTQ female artist, but it is also artistically revolutionary. Her technique highly influenced a more academic style in early 20th-century painting. Despite all this, her accomplishments have gone unnoticed and rejected by our society; or maybe it is she who has yet again rejected us.