Victorine Meurend

"Portrait of
Victorine Meurend", 1862
Edouard Manet
An extraordinary, multitalented woman living in 19th-century Paris caused the scandal of the century--and expanded the boundaries of artistic freedom of expression.

"Luncheon on the Grass", 1863
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) is often called the first modern painter, or the first impressionist. His work "Luncheon on the Grass", displayed at the prestigious official Salon exhibition of 1863, shocked Parisians with its bold treatment of a most unusual subject. What "respectable" woman would picnic au naturel with two fully clothed men? Could she be a--?

Her name was Victorine Louise Meurend, and she was Manet's favorite model for years. In 1865, she stunned the art world once more at the Salon in Manet's "Olympia". Imagine yourself the customer of the high-class prostitute Olympia. ("Olympia" was a common "stage name" among Parisian prostitutes.) As you enter her boudoir, you find her lounging on an elaborate bed. She is decorated with earrings, a flower in her hair, a neck-ribbon, a bracelet, a single slipper, and nothing else. Her servant presents the flowers you have brought, but Olympia gazes directly at you with an expression of bored self-assurance. Such a realistic portrayal of prostitution so outraged Parisians that "Olympia" had to be moved near the Salon's high ceiling for its own protection. Critics universally denounced its unashamed immorality. But in the decades to follow, both "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia" were recognized as groundbreaking masterpieces, and found a home in the world's most renowned museum: the Louvre.

"Olympia", 1863
Edouard Manet

Art historians have long believed that Meurend was in fact a prostitute. Recent photographic and circumstantial evidence confirms this theory: she apparently modeled for pornographic photos, something only prostitutes were willing to do at that time. Indeed, some of her photographs were also used by Delacroix (1798-1863) as references for his art. Meurend was a guitarist and a superb artist herself. Her own paintings appeared at the Salon of 1876--when Manet was rejected! And her "A Bourgeois of Nurembourg" was displayed at the Salon of 1879 in the same room as Manet's works. Meurend's long and productive life ended in 1927.

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