Two Manet Models will spend eternity together on the canvas of Olympia, one of Édouard Manet’s most famous paintings. In life Laure and Victorine Meurent lived near each other in the 9th arrondissement in Paris. It is believed that they never posed together for Olympia. It is also possible that they never met in person.
Manet’s Olympia triggered a scandal in May of 1865 when he showed at the Paris Salon, the official exhibition forum of the time. He said his painting was a tribute to Titan’s Venus of Urbino and Goya’s Maja desnuda. But his version shattered the traditional treatment of the female nude. Instead of a modest woman shrinking from her viewer, Olympia was a businesswoman, shamelessly confident as she glared disdainfully at her next customer.
Their circumstances were different. But two Manet models of Olympia offer a peek at the lives of women marginalized in the 1860s in Paris.
The flesh-and-blood woman who portrayed Manet’s Olympia was Victorine Meurent (Feb. 18, 1844 – March 17, 1927). As a popular model for several painters, she was recognizable in Paris.
Meurent posed for nine paintings by Manet between 1862 and 1874. She was the model for several other artists as well. Her willingness to appear nude while staring boldly at the viewer made her a notorious figure to the general public.
In her book, Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her own Desire, art historian Eunice Lipton writes:
“The press took an instant and bellicose dislike to the work, using words like: “The vicious strangeness of this …woman of the night”; “a sort of female gorilla, a grotesque…” “Such indecency!” Before anyone knew what was happening, respectable Parisians were sweeping through the Salon’s drafty halls brandishing walking sticks and umbrellas; they were heading to Olympia with murder on their minds.”
Mortified, Manet fled to Spain. Meanwhile Victorine Meurent was under attack. Because of her willingness to pose nude, many assumed she was the prostitute she portrayed. Critics took potshots at what was considered her “less than perfect” body.
Meurent appeared another controversial painting by Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe) in 1863. In this canvas, she posed nude beside two fully clothed men. As in Olympia, she looks at the viewer with a shameless gaze that infuriated the public.
In Alias Olympia Lipton writes:
“From each and every canvas I saw that the model surveyed the viewer, resisting centuries of admonition to ingratiate herself. Locked behind her gaze were thoughts, an ego maneuvering…And that is why in the Spring of 1865 men shook with rage in front of Olympia. She was unmanageable; they knew she had to be contained.:
In her book Eunice Lipton explores why Meurent dismissed by Manet’s biographers when his friends and fellow artists recognized her importance. Lipton points out that painters including Jacques-Emile Blanche believed that Meurent influenced the personality of Manet’s works.
A largely self-taught painter, she struggled to support herself. Females were not allowed to attend formal painting academies until the 1860s. In 1875 she studied with Etienne Leroy.
One of her paintings was shown at the Salon in 1876, the same year Manet’s work was rejected. Meurent was shown at the Salon six times. According to Wikipedia, her work was exhibited in 1879 at the Academie des Beaux Arts, in the same room with the entry by Manet.
Despite this success, Meurent struggled for recognition. She continued to support herself as a model for Norbert Goeneutte and Toulouse-Lautrec through the 1880s. In her book Lipton suggests that Meurent’s willingness to model nude undermined her reputation as a painter.
All of Meurent’s paintings are lost except one. Palm Sunday, which she painted in the 1880s, was discovered in 2004. It now hangs in a museum in Colombes, a suburb of Paris.
Meurent was ahead of her time. Less than twenty years after Olympia, Jules Cheret reflected emerging female “freedoms” in the rapidly changing Parisian society. The Jules Chéret Chérettes were self-assured, adventurous, athletic and happy. They could dress scantily, dance wildly, smoke and drink publicly, and generally behave as they pleased.
Between the Two Manet Models behind Olympia—Laure has only slightly less weight in the composition. She was known simply as Laure. Manet also used her in his 1862 paintings Children in the Tuileries Garden and La Négresse.
Slavery had been permanently abolished in French colonies following the Revolution of 1848. (For perspective, in 1863 Harriett Tubman led a raid during the Civil War that freed more than 750 slaves.) Many black and mixed-race people from the French Caribbean settled in the northern part of Paris. Although their options for work were generally limited, they were free wage earners. Women eked out their livings as domestic servants, street vendors and sex workers.
Laure was most likely African or Caribbean. She lived in Paris in the 9th arrondissement near Victorine Meurent and Manet. Little else is known about her other than a few details gleaned from Manet’s only surviving notebook, which is held by The Morgan Library and Museum.
According to Colin B. Bailey, Director of The Morgan Library & Museum, the notebook was used by Manet in the 1860s in the two years leading up to his most significant paintings, The Luncheon On The Grass and Olympia. Among the details he recorded in the book were the names and addresses of models, publishers, framers and collectors.
As the source of the identity of the Black model in Olympia, Manet’s notebook has long been acknowledged to be of great interest. On pages 96 and 97.”
“Laure’s modest apartment on the rue de Vintimille, just south of place Clichy, was in fact on the fourth floor, not the third. The apartment was part of an industrial complex of four shops and forty-eight small dwellings, whose residents included wine merchants, dressmakers, and hairdressers.2 It seems likely that Manet made a sketch of the complex on the same page (p. 98/fol. 110) to help him remember the location of Laure’s dwelling.
Denise Murrell discovered Laure’s identity when the Morgan Library & Museum agreed to loan Manet’s notebook out for the first time. Murrell recognized that the vast majority of material written about Olympia focused on the white prostitute. Murrell ’s doctoral thesis examined Manet’s intentions in Olympia as well as the environment in which Laure would have lived and worked.
Her doctoral thesis grew into an acclaimed exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today. It was held first at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, from October 2018 to February 2019. An expanded version of the exhibition was shown at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris March of 2019.
Manet often captured the urban theater of Paris. In Children in the Tuileries, 1861-2 he captures a trio of little girls, a man, one older girl, and Laure posing as a nursemaid. In it, Manet records the mingling of different economic classes. The garden was not far from where he lived. Some historians believe that Laure might have been working as a nanny who caught Manet’s eye.
Clearly, Laure inspired Manet. Hopefully, we will one day learn more about her life. For now she remains forever as one of the two Manet models of Olympia.