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Victorine Meurent has, for the most part, been known to the world only as Edouard Manet’s model in a number of controversial paintings.

Over at the Guardian today, V R Main provides a different perspective:

It was more than a century after Edouard Manet’s death that the art historian Eunice Lipton discovered that his model, Victorine Meurent, had actually lived to be 83. And it seems unlikely that she was his grisette – a young woman in a casual relationship with an artist – let alone a prostitute. Manet died at 51 from complications related to treatment for syphilis, then an incurable disease. If there had been a sexual relationship, Meurent would probably have died far earlier than she did.

Most importantly, Lipton realised that Meurent had fulfilled her painting ambitions and exhibited at the 1876 Salon – in the same year that Manet’s work was rejected. And Meurent’s story has a very recent postscript. It was thought that all her work had been lost but, just yesterday, a museum in Colombes, France, took possession of one of her paintings – another fascinating piece in the puzzle of her life.

Unfortunately, the online version of this story doesn’t include a photo of this painting, and is instead illustrated with one of Manet’s more famous paintings for which she modelled.

The question remains: why was Meurent so dismissed by the painter’s biographers? After all, Manet’s inner circle seems to have recognised her importance. The artist’s close friend Antonin Proust noted in his memoirs that Meurent was Manet’s favourite model (she posed for nine of his canvases); Jacques-Emile Blanche, who also knew the painter, was moved to ask, “How often does a chance meeting between a painter and a model decisively influence the personality of his works?”

But while Meurent’s contribution was recognised by Manet’s friends, her willingness to pose naked made her a notorious figure to the general public, undermining her hopes of being taken seriously. In 18th- and 19th-century art, female nudes were highly appreciated, as long as they represented goddesses or mythical figures. In contrast, the women in Manet’s most famous paintings, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia, both modelled by Meurent, clearly belonged to contemporary Paris. And they weren’t idealised goddesses; several critics commented that Meurent’s body was far from perfect.

Main interprets Manet’s portraits of Meurent as feminist:

Le Déjeuner is such a strong painting that it inspired me to research its model and write a novel based on what is known of her life. The painting is a feminist work: it presents a powerful woman, offered for male inspection, but not objectified; the model’s challenging stare meets the viewer’s gaze in a way that thwarts desire. The female figure is disconcerting, exploding the stereotype of an anonymous, passive woman. In both Le Déjeuner and Olympia, Meurent refuses to collude with the spectator; her sexuality is all her own.

The challenging nature of the Meurent portraits was not immediately appreciated by the public, and at a time when poor women were often forced to sell themselves, a woman whose naked body could be seen in public – albeit in an oil painting – was straight-forwardly perceived as a prostitute. When Le Déjeuner was first exhibited, at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, the public’s response ranged from laughter to outright violence: more than one visitor expressed his outrage by hitting the image with a stick. Men would hurry their wives and children past the painting, only to return later to stare at it alone. The critical reception was no different to that of the public. Meurent acquired notoriety and became known by name, unusual for a model at the time.