Guest post by Drēma Drudge, author of the new novel Victorine
When I first encountered Victorine Meurent, it was her as Olympia in Édouard Manet’s iconic painting, exhibited in Paris in 1865. This work scandalized both the public and the art community with its depiction of a defiant nude presumed to be a sex worker. As my professor turned on the classroom lights after his presentation, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the red-haired woman in the painting was trying to communicate with me.
The next summer found me examining the painting at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, trying to figure out what it was she wanted to tell me. She had also posed, I learned, for Manet’s equally “scandalous” painting of the time, Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), also on display at this museum. Meurent, nude again.
If history remembers Victorine Meurent, it’s as Manet’s favorite model. She was, however, an artist herself. Her work was included in the prestigious Paris Salon multiple times, no small feat for someone poor and female. Her self-portrait was even exhibited in 1876 at the Salon, when Manet’s work was rejected.
Meurent lived with a woman, Marie DuFour, for the last twenty or so years of her life, calling into question the accuracy of those rumors that Meurent really was a sex worker, that she was a beggarly alcoholic who traded on her past “fame” and died young. She actually lived to be 83.
According to Meurent in a letter she wrote Manet’s widow in 1883, she earned a living painting until she injured a finger on her right hand. There’s also evidence that she taught music lessons.
Upon learning that the only painting of hers known by most of the world to exist is Palm Sunday, which was recovered only in 2004, I wanted to write a novel returning her to the world as an artist. I thought, maybe that’s what she wanted of me. If only I could see the paintings she had created, maybe I could learn more about who she was. In lieu of that, I’d have to use my imagination. Or would I? I researched her as much as I could, but there wasn’t much to know. So I plunged ahead with what information I had at hand.
For instance: Wikipedia insinuated that Victorine had been a lover of the artist Alfred Stevens. That led me to his paintings of her. Though she appeared in more paintings of his than I explore in the novel, and though he was overly fond of red-haired models, in some of them he named his model, so in those we know the model is Victorine. Those paintings gave me another source to study who she was. It also gave me fodder for the war section of the novel. Given how little is known about her, these paintings filled some gaps, and helped me know what she was up to, when.
We have the barest of facts about Meurent: she was born February 22, 1844. Her middle name was Louise. We know where she was baptized (St. Elisabeth) and her parents’ names (Jean Louis Étienne Meurent and Louise Thérèse Lemesre). We have no evidence that she ever married, and we know that she went to art school at the Académie Julian after she sat for Manet.
Oh, but what I wanted above all was to examine Victorine’s brush strokes, her choice of subject, the colors she favored. Her style. Was it true that she and Manet went their separate ways because she chose a more traditional route to the Salon? Only her paintings could tell me—and they were lost.
One frigid February morning while I was writing Victorine, a young boy introduced himself into my story. He said his name was Pug. He charmed me (and Victorine in my story), so we let him stay. Much later, I discovered another recovered painting of hers in Paris that few seem to know exists: Le Briquet, featuring a boy eating a piece of bread. That was Pug, I had no doubt.
In my novel, Victorine’s mother has a dog she cares about more than she does her daughter. Talking with a staffer at a museum in France brought to light yet another recently found painting of hers, one of a small terrier named Jup. I hadn’t known of the painting (few do even now) when I wrote of the dog, prompting me to ask my publisher for time to insert the dog’s actual name into the book before publication. That felt like giving yet another piece of herself back to Victorine’s history.
However, I didn’t give up entirely the notion of finding more paintings of her. I put Google alerts on my phone; I ran down every tiny lead I could find on the internet that might lead to something else. I began to hear hints, hints that I at first dismissed.
Someone online made a claim about the rediscovery of an important painting of Victorine’s. But they didn’t say what it was, or where it had been found. I waited for the media to run with it, but either it didn’t hear or didn’t care. That broke my heart and made me more determined than ever to find it. While the circumstances of its actual recovery are still veiled, a photo of painting came to my awareness when my husband, my ever-devoted research assistant, phone in hand, asked me a question he had asked me a dozen times before that hadn’t amounted to anything in our quest for paintings by Meurent: “Have you seen this?”
This time, I had not. This time, I thought he might have actually found it: he had pulled up an auction description containing—be still my heart—a photo of a self-portrait of Victorine. More specifically, the self-portrait: Victorine’s self-portrait from the 1876 Salon, the exhibit in which she had “bested” Manet. I expanded the picture to be sure her signature was on the painting; it was. This led to a hasty email from me to the owner of the painting, a French gallery owner, who allowed me to use the portrait on the back of my novel. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the painting has ever been published beyond in an auction catalog.
This recovered painting is particularly important because Victorine’s self-portrait would have been a significant act of defiance and self-delineation in a rapidly changing art world. Its recovery will allow art scholars to compare it with the more than thirty paintings of her by male artists, and to see her as she saw herself. That its existence has not been brought to the art world’s attention even after its rediscovery underlines one of the issues my novel aims to raise: women who in real life are multifaceted and multitalented, are often reduced to mere objects of the male gaze. May my novel allow Victorine to once again take her rightful place in art herstory.
Drēma Drudge is a novelist, freelance writer, and educator who lives in Indiana with her husband, writer and musician Barry Drudge. Her fiction has been published in The Louisville Review, Mused, ATG, Penumbra, Woolf Zine, and The Same, among other publications. She is a regular contributor to the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Her new novel Victorine (Fleur-de-Lis Press, March 2020) tells the compelling story of a daring female artist and model of late nineteenth-century Paris.
If you liked this Art Herstory blog post, you might also enjoy:
The Abstract-Impressionism of Berthe Morisot and Joan Mitchell, a guest post by novelist Paula Butterfield
The Theatrical Wonders of Jeanne Paquin’s Belle Époque Parisienne, by Julia Westerman
Ten Intriguing Books About Remarkable Women Artists, guest post by novelist Carol M. Cram
For the complete list of Art Herstory blog posts, visit this link