Manet’s ‘Olympia’ Was So Much More Than a Muse

Artist Victorine Meurent, who posed for the famous nude coming to the U.S. for the first time this September, exhibited in the Académie des Beaux-Arts Salon six times and was inducted into the Société des Artistes Français.

Set to be on view this fall as part of the Met’s upcoming Manet/Degas exhibition, Edouard Manet’s Olympia might just be the most talked about nude of the 19th century. The painting, which hung in the Académie des Beaux-Arts Salon of Paris in 1865, scandalized the art insiders of the day and attracted disdain and even violence from both the French public and critics.

A painting of a nude woman lounging in a bed while a woman holding flowers and a cat look on
Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863). © RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Journalist Jules Arsène Arnaud Claretie notably asked: “What is this odalisque with the yellow chest, an ignoble model picked up who knows where and who has the pretension to represent Olympia?”

Who, indeed? Putting aside the absurdity of Claretie’s question—Olympia was a common nom de guerre in brothels—the answer is Victorine Meurent, the model, musician and artist wrongly framed by many art historians as little more than a prostitute with a tragic backstory. Manet’s biographer, Alphonse Tabarant, even wrongly claimed she died in her early 40s. Why? Most likely for no other reason than that she was a woman from a working class background who had serious creative aspirations and was willing to—very occasionally—shed her clothes in the service of the art of La Belle Époque.

A painting of a nude woman sitting at a picnic with two clothed men and another woman
Manet’s ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’ (1863). © RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Yes, it is Meurent who gazes out at us unabashedly from Olympia and the equally controversial Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. But Manet also painted Meurent as the avid musician she was (The Guitar Player), as well as in the guise of a matador (Mademoiselle V. in the Costume of an Espada) and possibly also as a mother (The Railway).

The other role Meurent plays in the traditional art history narrative is that of not just Manet’s muse but also his lover. There is, however, no real evidence supporting the notion that the two were anything more than colleagues and one piece of solid evidence reinforcing the chasteness of their relationship: Manet died of syphilis in 1883 at age 51, while Meurent died years later, at age 83, in 1927, with nothing to indicate syphilis was involved.

More likely, she and he simply shared a social circle populated by artists and other people of culture. Manet painted La Partie de Croquet, which features Meurent, in the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens’ garden. Meurent posed for Stevens, Edgar Degas, Norbet Goeneutte, Thomas Couture and Toulouse-Lautrec as a means of supporting herself, in addition to giving lessons in guitar and violin and performing at café-concerts.

The real story of Victorine Meurent (which can be told primarily due to the sleuthing of art historian Eunice Lipton and her book Alias Olympia) is far less sordid or tragic than many sources would have us believe and involves a lot more art. In 1875, Meurent began studying with the Parisian painter Étienne Leroy. Just one year later, Meurent submitted her first work to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and it was accepted into the annual Salon—Manet’s submissions were rejected—lending credence to the supposition that she may have studied at Couture’s atelier while modeling for him.

A painting of a girl holding a sprig of greenery
Meurent’s ‘Le Jour des Rameaux’. Musée municipal d'Art et d'Histoire

Whether or not Meurent was an artistic prodigy is irrelevant. What is germane to any conversation about Manet’s muse is the fact that she went on to exhibit in the Salon five more times, including in 1879, when her painting Bourgeoise de Nuremberg au XVIe siècle hung in the same room as Manet’s Dans la serre. Meurent wouldn’t have been eligible to enroll at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, as it didn’t accept women, but she was one of the first women to study at the Académie Julian.

A painting of a boy eating bread
Meurent’s ‘Le Briquet’. Musée municipal d'Art et d'Histoire, photo: G.Garitan

We also know that she and Manet eventually became estranged—not as the result of romantic drama (as Tabarant asserts) but likely over artistic differences. Meurent was drawn to the classical Academic style of painting while Manet was instrumental in pushing the Impressionist movement forward, even if he preferred not to identify as an Impressionist and distanced himself from the movement.

Tabarant would have us believe that Meurent became something of a joke in the 1890s—drinking heavily and trying, but failing, to sell her work. Yet Meurent was inducted into the Société des Artistes Français in 1903. And we know from census records and other sources that Meurent not only identified as an artist but also for some time earned her living as one.

Victorine Meurent, the model, left behind a hazy history largely shaped by the male gaze. So what did Victorine Meurent, the artist, leave behind? Sadly, not much. The last recorded sale of one of her paintings happened in 1930, and for decades it was believed that all her work was lost. Gradually, work by Meurent has surfaced, including three works held in the Musée municipal d’Art et d’Histoire in Colombes, where Meurent owned a home with Marie Dufour in her later life: Le briquet, Le Jour Des Rameaux and Jup, a painting of a dog.

A fourth painting by Meurent, a self portrait, hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

A painting of a woman with red hair
A self-portrait by Victorine-Louise Meurent, painted in 1876. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, photo : Edouard Ambroselli

She stares at us from the canvas with that same direct and intense expression that made her such a compelling model. As in Olympia and many other works, we look upon Meurent as she looks back at us. We can never know the true thoughts and feelings underlying that steady gaze, but it’s not unreasonable to consider that she may have been ruminating on the conflict between the dynamic artist she was and the quiet muse the world expected her to be.

Olympia and 160 other paintings and works on paper by Manet and Degas will be on view at The Met’s Tisch Galleries in Manet/Degas from September 24, 2023 through January 7, 2024.

Manet’s ‘Olympia’ Was So Much More Than a Muse