Monday’s Muse: Victorine-Louise Meurent & Édouard Manet
There is a long-standing dispute over the number of Muses, though there is little argument over their nature. For the classical historians and poets (from Ovid to Homer to Plutarch), the Muses – the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne – were the source of inspiration for all students and practitioners of the arts, sciences and letters. Over the centuries the muses have developed from a concept of divine inspiration into more mortal iterations. The private worship and cult of the muse has become all the more public, and abstract symbolism has been replaced by living, breathing beings. Some artists have chosen to idolize their subjects, to smooth over their wrinkles, while others have chosen to present them as they saw them: flaws and all.
Monday’s Muse will be a new weekly feature on the Lofty Blog, exploring some of the more colorful examples of muses and the artists they inspired through the centuries.
Left: Manet’s Street Singer, Right: Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass
There is perhaps no better example than Victorine-Louise Meurent. Hers is a name, which for most has almost no resonance. Her name was included in the title of only one of Manet’s paintings, so compared to Dora Maar or Gala Dali, Meurent had an even slimmer chance of accidental discovery. And yet, she is the subject of some of the most important works of the 19th Century. In the end, Meurent sat for nine works by Manet including Luncheon on the Grass (1862), Olympia (1863), and The Railway (1873).
Manet’s The Railway
As is typical with artists and muses, there are a variety of apocryphal versions of their first encounter, their relationship, and their inevitable break. It seems that some of the most wild and salacious accounts have survived: stories riddled with clandestine affairs, alcoholism, and an almost lyrical first encounter (one goes that Manet chased after her when he saw her walking down the street in Montmartre). In reality, few reliable biographical details remain of Meurent’s life. It is thought that she was born to a family of engravers in 1844, and that she and Manet met via his teacher and mentor, Thomas Couture.
Left: Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent, Right: Couture’s Female Head
La Crevette, (the little shrimp), as she later became known (somewhat cruelly for her pink complexion and red hair), would have seemed a strange choice as a model, let alone a muse. A comparison of Couture’s Female Head (1857) and Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent (1862) is a perfect illustration of why Meurent was a strange choice of subject: she does not have a particularly striking set of features, there is not a natural grace in her pose, and her complexion seems blurred and pinkish, not porcelain white. According to some reports, in addition to her rather plain features, she was said to be quite stout.
“You must be of your time and paint what you see.” -Édouard Manet
Yet, Manet’s decision to place her at the center of so many of his great works is indicative of his desire to paint something real, something relevant. He once remarked to friends, “You must be of your time and paint what you see”, and Meurent was just that. She was not to be just a sitter, or a source of inspiration, she was to be so familiar, so basic that she could become a sort of universal muse to all who saw her – a sort of everywoman, designed to show the beauty of daily life. Unlike the classical model where the muse and artist enter into a spiritual relationship, Manet presents a relationship where the muse is not an object of adoration, but a real, flawed woman whose life does not begin and end with painting. Manet depicts her as an independent person. Meurent always retains an air of mystery in each work, she seems to participate in each narrative out of her own choice, and not out of obligation.
In Street Singer (1862, pictured above) she is frozen in mid-step, a bunch of grapes to her mouth, and a guitar under her arm. It is as though she is attempting to hurry from the frame, as though its limits are only barely enough to contain her. Her manner is so candid that it’s closer to a snapshot than it is to a portrait.
Titan’s Venus of Urbino
In perhaps Manet’s most famous painting – Olympia – Meurent again assumes a role of control. The painting is modeled after Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and whilst it shares the same sexual overtones and was equally if not more inflammatory upon its reveal, Olympia presents a much more modern form of femininity. Meurent’s gaze is level and directed at the viewer. Her pose is open and brazen, and what little clothing she has suggest she is a prostitute. Yet, her left hand covers her lap, whereas Titian’s Venus seems to be crooked towards the viewer. The latter invites, the former controls; since neither is unaware of their nudity, Manet’s painting and Meurent’s pose offer a version of female sexual independence. Meurent is mistress of her own domain. There is none of the coyness of Titian’s Venus. Meurent is calm.
Despite the inevitable rumours that the pair were secret lovers, their respective demises (Manet of syphilis at 51, and Meurent of natural causes at 83) would suggest that theirs was never anything beyond a formal relationship.
In life, Meurent remained fiercely independent from Manet. After she stopped modelling for him, she began her own painting studies, and eventually broke from Manet when she found her own aspirations and aesthetics were at odds with his. She went so far as to refuse Manet’s offer for a share in the profits from the works for which she sat. She was inducted into the Société des Artistes Français, and finished her life in a small house she shared with another artist.
Feature Image: Detail of Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent