Olympia – the muse, the model, the woman

We take requests here at Museworthy, yes we do. My Aunt Iris is an artist, an art teacher in the New York City public schools for over three decades, and a High School of Music and Art and Hunter College alum. She suggested I do a post of Manet’s “Olympia” on this blog. Now I am quite familiar with this famous painting and have never been too crazy about it. Always knew it was beautiful from an artistic and technical standpoint, but still found it too “bourgeois” for my taste, not to mention a little racist with the black maid doting on a white whore. What can I say? I’m a pain in the ass.

But little did I know what a fascinating and interesting discovery awaited me as I embarked upon my research of the model. Her name was Victorine Meurent, a French painter herself and popular artist’s model of her day. She was a muse to Manet, of course, as the subject of “Olympia”, “Luncheon on the Grass”, and many others. She also posed for Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, who used to introduce her as “Olympia” (I would have slapped him if he did that to me).

She is posed in “Olympia” as a high-class prostitute, with a bit of attitude I’d say. When the painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865, society’s prudes unleashed their usual torrent of indignant hysteria, calling the painting “vulgar”, “immoral”, and “offensive”. Sounds like something that could still happen in some parts of America today. Calling John Ashcroft!

But Victorine was no prostitute in real life. She supported herself as an artists’ model while she created paintings of her own, which were very well-received. She exhibited several times at the Paris Salon and in the 1876 juried show, her works were accepted while, get this, Manet’s were all rejected! Oh snap!!! Ouch. And it’s interesting that not long after Manet’s terrible humiliation of seeing his model’s paintings being chosen over his, that he and Victorine were professionally estranged from then on. Hmmm. A male artist guilty of macho, sexist, competitive jealousy? Never heard of such a thing. ::wink::

Anyway, it’s wonderful to know that an accomplished, hardworking (as both artist AND model) woman is behind such famous and iconic works of art, most of which depict her as a sex object. What irony.

Victorine Meurent died in 1927 and, unfortunately, most of her own work is either missing or destroyed, which is a terrible shame.

Here is “Olympia”, which hangs today in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. After viewing it, keep scrolling for a much more “human” portrait of the real woman Victorine, rather than some fantasy courtesan. Second portrait is also by Manet. I love her face.

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