Paris Red: Manet and his Muse

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.

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863), Musée d’Orsay

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.

Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe (1863), Musée d'Orsay

Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe (1863), Musée d’Orsay

 

EdouardManet, The Railway (1874), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Edouard Manet, 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.

Victorine Meurent, Le Jour Des Rameaux

Victorine Meurent, Le Jour Des Rameaux (1880), Musée Municipal d’Art et Histoire de Columbes, France.

 

 

Paris RedSo who was she? How did Victorine get from posing for Olympia to painting her own Le Jour des Rameaux?

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

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.)

sacre bleu

Berthe Morisot’s Interior

In this 1893 painting, Berthe Morisot pictures her teenage daughter Julie in the interior of their apartment at 10 rue Weber, where they moved after the 1892 death of Morisot’s husband Eugene Manet. I think it tells us a story about the interior of Morisot’s own life.

Berthe Morisot, Julie Playing a Violin (1893)

One of the first things I notice is the portrait of Morisot hanging on the wall to the left of the fireplace. Her brother-in-law Édouard Manet painted it in 1873, when Morisot was thirty-two years old and had just started showing with the Impressionists. Manet gave it to Morisot as a gift. I am always struck by the pose and the gaze that Manet captured. Pretty sensuous. Yet one year later, Morisot would marry Édouard’s brother. Twenty years later, after both Édouard and Eugene have died, Morisot paints a picture with this portrait in the background.

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot Reclining (1873)

There are a few other interesting details in the painting of Julie and a Violin. According to Julie Morisot, who is quoted in the Exhibition Catalog for the Berthe Morisot Exhibit at the Musée Marmottan, the painting to the right of the fireplace – which is cut off and barely even depicted – is a painting of her father by Degas. In the center of the painting behind Julie, there is a large Chinese bowl, a treasured gift from Édouard Manet. Notice how close it is to the fireplace, how bright and prominent it is in the center of the room next to Julie. Finally, consider the empty yellow chair facing Morisot’s own portrait. It has been placed there on purpose – why else would it be facing the wall and not Julie?

I think we know. The two most treasured people in Morisot’s life were her daughter and Édouard – not Eugene – Manet. But of course, I’m just speculating, drawing wild conclusions from a pretty painting. And yet, I know that everything in the background of a painting is carefully selected and placed there for a reason, just like the details in a book. I think this painting hints at a really good story.

If you go to rue Weber today, you can find Morisot’s lovely apartment still standing. There is no historical marker, and few of the neighbors I spoke to even know it was once Morisot’s home. It is one of the loveliest streets in Paris, in a quiet corner of the 16th arrondissement that ends at the Bois de Boulogne. Despite their loss and grief, Morisot and her daughter must have had some simple pleasures their last two years there together, with frequent walks and sketching opportunities in the nearby park.

Morisot would catch pneumonia in 1895 and die at the age of 52. Julie would come under the guardianship of a Manet family friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, until his death in 1899.

Morisot’s secret interior would live on in her paintings. You can see many of them for yourself at the special Berthe Morisot Exhibit at the Musée Marmottan until July 1, 2012.

Berthe Morisot’s Garden

Berthe Morisot: “Woman in a Garden” (1882-83)

This lovely Berthe Morisot painting once traveled from Chicago to Paris, just like me. It was included in the Berthe Morisot Exhibit at Musée Marmottan in 2012.  It had been loaned out by The Art Institute of Chicago.

This exhibit represented the first major retrospective of Berthe Morisot’s work in over 40 years. There were over 150 works, including paintings, pastels, watercolors and drawings, gathered from museums and private collections all over the world. Some you might have seen before, whether at the Marmottan or the Musée D’Orsay, but there were some you may never have the chance to see again. The effect of seeing so many of her works together, in such a beautiful setting, is just plain stunning. Once in a lifetime perhaps.

But the exhibit offered much more than that. Together, Morisot’s collected works told the story of this remarkable woman’s life, from her earliest years as a copyist at the Louvre to her final years as a celebrated Impressionist and devoted mother.

In the Exhibition Catalogue you can find the details of Morisot’s life right alongside her paintings, all in chronological order. You can follow Morisot as she moves from home to home in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, from her parents’ homes at 12 and 16 rue Franklin, to her last home as a widow at 10 rue Weber. Aside from her travels and her summers in suburban Paris, she spent her entire life in the 16th.

In fact, Morisot painted Woman in a Garden during the period she lived on rue Villejust, now known as rue Paul Valéry. Her home still stands today, with the same garden that she once could have painted in.

Morisot lived at 40 rue Villejust (40 rue Paul Valéry) from 1883-1893, during her marriage to Edouard Manet’s brother Eugene. They lived on the first floor and her mother-in-law lived on the second floor. Morisot hosted weekly salons where the Impressionists hung out. As Renoir’s son Jean said in his father’s biography: “In Berthe Morisot’s day the Manet circle had been one of the most authentic centers of civilized Parisian life. . . . It was not just intellectuals one met at Berthe Morisot’s, but simply good company. . . . Berthe Morisot acted like a special kind of magnet on people, attracting only the genuine. She had a gift for smoothing rough edges. ‘Even Degas was more civil when with her.’ “

After her husband Eugene died in 1893, Morisot and her daughter Julie moved out of the rue Villejust home.  In 1900, Morisot’s niece Jeannie Gobillard and her new husband, the French poet Paul Valéry, moved in.

rue Villejust was eventually renamed rue Paul Valéry. It is located in the northern part of the 16th arrondissement, not far from the Bois de Boulogne.

This was once Berthe Morisot’s private garden. It resembles the setting for Woman in a Garden, but Morisot also spent time at a suburban country home, so we do not know if this was the setting for the painting. I would like to think so, because, well, I was there. When the construction on the house was completed in 1893, Morisot’s husband planted the flowers and plants in the garden.

I love the green lattices in French courtyards. They certainly make for a beautiful background in Morisot’s painting.

I must admit I was a little disappointed with the historical marker at 40 rue Paul Valéry. Its only reference to Berthe Morisot? Paul Valéry married her niece. That’s it. Every other line is devoted to Valéry.

Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait (1885). Morisot would have painted this in her home on rue Villejust, where she had no separate art studio. She managed to balance her career with motherhood by merging her home life and her painting life.

I admire Morisot’s skill and patience in being able to capture these busy girls (her daughter Julie age 8 and the concierge’s daughter, Marthe Givaudan) playing with goldfish in a valuable bowl, which was a treasured gift from Morisot’s brother-in-law Edouard Manet. The home as studio, yet a comfortable place where kids can be kids and mothers can be painters.

More photos and posts will follow from my Berthe Morisot tour of the 16th. There are no more historical markers, but there is plenty of art history. I hope you’ll follow along.

The Passy Cemetery Artists: Manet, Morisot and Marie Bashkirtseff


Passy Cemetery

They say that the Pere Lachaise Cemetery is the second most visited tourist site in Paris, which might be true. What I do know is that the Passy Cemetery in the 16th arrondissement is also wonderful place for a quiet stroll on a beautiful day, especially for the art lover.

Manet and Morisot Tomb, Passy Cemetery

Passy Cemetery is home to the tomb of impressionist artist Edouard Manet, his brother Eugene, and Berthe Morisot, who married Eugene at the age of 33.

Edouard Manet: Portrait of Berthe Morisot reclining (Source: Marmatton Museum, http://www.marmottan.com/english/collections-musee/berthe-morisot.asp)

 

Berthe Morisot lived most of her life in the bourgeois area of Passy, first with her parents, and later with her husband. Berthe’s mother actually gave up her flat on rue Guichard to Berthe and Eugene after their marriage.

Berthe was a muse and model to Edouard Manet, and posed for him many times. Whether or not they were ever lovers, you can feel how well he knew her in his portrait to the left. The painting feels exceedingly intimate, doesn’t it? I love how Manet captured her easy elegance, but with a touch of the defiance she must have had in order to succeed as a female artist during that era. You can see this astoundingly beautiful portrait for yourself at Musee Marmottan in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

There is a lesser known surprise at the Passy Cemetery: the tomb of the impressionist Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff, who studied at the Academy Julien in Paris until she died from tuberculosis at age 25. The tomb is a recreated art studio, not your typical religious monument.

But then Marie Bashkirtseff was not your typical 19th century woman. She is probably best known for her personal journals which were published posthumously in 1889, and which revealed her ambition, her feminism and her struggle for recognition in the male dominated world of art in 19th century France. They were considered radical, narcissistic and highly controversial at the time.

Marie Mashkirtseff's Tomb in Passy Cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite paintings by Marie Bashkirtseff is of female painters in a segregated art studio, the Academie Julian in Paris in 1881. Marie placed herself in the painting in the lower right-hand corner. At the time, it was considered highly controversial for women to paint from live nude models, so it is interesting that this painting shows a young model with a discretely draped cloth. I’m also a little amused by the fact that the artist holding a palette in the foreground appears to have lost her easel.

Marie Bashkirtseff: In the Studio (Source: wikipedia)

I highly recommend a walking tour of the Passy Cemetery on a nice day in Paris, followed by a visit to the Musee Marmottan. You’ll be walking in the footsteps of some exceptional women artists.