I’ve always wanted to know more about the woman behind one of my favorite paintings from the Musée d’Orsay, Olympia by Edouard Manet.
We might know the model’s name: Victorine Meurent, and we might recognize her as the redhead from some of Manet’s other famous paintings, including Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (1863), Musée D’Orsay and The Railway (1874), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
But who was Victorine? What was her connection to Manet? What does her defiant, direct gaze tell us about her?
We might never know the true story about Victorine Meurent. For example, we apparently don’t know for sure how Manet and Victorine met. Was she already a model for Manet’s teacher, Thomas Couture? Some say they met on the street near her home at 17 rue Maître Albert, close to the Palais de Justice. Were they lovers, as her nude poses suggest, was she a prostitute, or was it a relationship of collaborators and fellow artists?
Few people know that Victorian Meurent studied painting on her own at the Académie Julian and exhibited her own paintings at the Paris Salon various years between 1876 and 1903. Quelle surprise, non? Only one painting by Victorine has survived (that we know of), a portrait that reveals a great deal of talent.
Lucky for us, mystery and ambiguity are the author’s playground. In Paris Red, Maureen Gibbon has imagined her very own Victorine as a brilliantly alive and psychologically complex character.
Gibbon’s Victorine is a hungry and lusty working class girl who meets Edouard Manet while she is sketching a white cat on a Paris street and wearing “the bottle green boots of a whore.” (One of my favorite images in the book.) They symbolize Victorine’s need, her hunger, her desire for color and beauty, no matter how raw.
Victorine and Manet fall into a tricky kind of love and she becomes his muse. Together, they create a revolution and a scandal in the art world.
Manet does not foresee a romantic future with Victorine. He is already living with Suzanne Leenhof and their son. (Interesting twist, in case you’ve never heard: some say Suzanne’s son was in fact Edouard’s father’s child. Suzanne had been hired as the Manet family piano teacher when Edoaurd was still a teenager, but that’s another story.) After Manet’s father’s death in 1862 and his marriage to Suzanne in 1863, Victorine becomes involved with another famous Paris painter, Alfred Stevens.
Paris Red is not just another story about how a famous artist exploits his model. You can see that Victorine is a collaborator, a partner and a student. She has agency and self-awareness. She studies Manet’s paintings and truly observes them. She learns about color theory and brush technique. She takes Manet’s leftover paint tubes and paints in her free time. But yet, she is desperate in her poverty and dependent on his money. There is a great deal of sex on the divan in the studio. Victorine is never clear whether the money he leaves for her is a modeling fee or a payment for something more unsavory. Does the money make her a whore, a model or a partner?
Whether or not Paris Red represents the “true story” about Victorine doesn’t matter. What matters is that Maureen Gibbon has created a Victorine who is a fully realized person with complicated motives and a gaze of her own. This is a woman who may attract the gaze of men, but who is so much more. I can’t wait to go back to the Musée D’Orsay to stare back into her eyes once again.
For further reading:
Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire by Eunice Lipton
Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore ( and my prior review and blog post here.)