Quiet women rarely make history. The strong and proud ones don’t seem to have much luck with it either… if they sleep around.
A well known painter, famous model to Manet, Degas and many other Parisian artists, occasional prostitute and mistress, street performer, bisexual, scandalously independent and sexually free, Victorine was too much to handle for most historians. Her story was carefully swept back into a dark corner of the one of the brightest times in history – the 1800s “Gay Paree” of Toulouse Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, the new Art movements and ways of thinking.
Her paintings are gone, save a single one. She was dismissed as an alcoholic prostitute, who was lucky enough to pose for some of the most famous paintings in the history of Art. But in her time, she made history (and some juicy gossip) indeed; and had died peacefully at 83 next to her long-time female partner, despite the mysterious claim of booze-induced death in her prime… assassination by historians?
Born in 1844 in an artisan family, she started modeling at 16, and was soon introduced to the highest and most controversial artists of the time. Tiny, stubborn beauty with flame-red hair, she posed for the most famous paintings of Manet, including The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, both of which were considered too “modern” and scandalous for general public.
She was for a long time Manet’s favorite model, until her raising fame as a painter herself (she exhibited 6 times at the the most prestigious Salon, once when Manet’s own painting was rejected), in a style that Manet rejected, made them estranged. Some say that the split came because of her adventurous (and sometimes “deviant”) love life. Victorine never cared to hide her independence and love of varied sex, as a more “proper” woman would have…
During this time and after, she modeled for many – among them Degas, Lautrec, Alfred Stevens (with whom she had a passionate 10 year affair), slept with whom she liked, men and women (both as a “kept woman” and not), sometimes drank too much, and developed her painter’s skills as one of the first female art students at the famous Academie Juliann. In early 1870s, she traveled to the US, no one really knows why… Some say to try to sell her paintings, other mention rumors about a crazy love affair. 1890’s found her in the arms of Marie Pellegrin, the (in)famous courtesan and an unapologetic lesbian.
At this time, she was snubbed by the art circles, and had fallen on hard times; drinking, selling drawings at cafes, playing guitar and violin on the streets, and turning an occasional trick. Luckily, she was too strong and stubborn to give in – by 1893, she’s exhibiting her paintings again, and in 1903, Victorine was inducted into Société des Artistes Français, and was able to gain enough funding to buy a small house where she lived peacefully with her love Marie Dufour till the end of her life.
Calling Victorine Meurent a “famous prostitute” illustrates nicely one of the many issues sex workers face: once it’s known that they are sex workers, to public they stop being anything else – accomplished artists, fascinating human beings, caring moms or favorite sisters. They become either the faceless and corrupting walking-vaginas (and/or penises)-for-rent, or ruined junkie victims waiting to be “rescued”. (It’s a rare “john” who can dehumanize a sex worker as successfully as a group who gets funding to “rescue” sex workers against their will and without their input.)
Victorine Meurent was a famous model, a well known painter, a woman who loved love and sex and an independent hooker. Live with it.