There’s a lot to unpack in this painting by Édouard Manet. Here we have a nude woman – most likely a prostitute – looking the viewer full in the face while her servant – a black woman – brings her flowers from an admirer. At first glance, this looks like something Salon-goers could have seen before – it’s not miles off of Titian’s Venus of Urbino in composition, for example. However, it wasn’t the nudity that was deemed offensive at the time, it was the inclusion of elements to make clear that this woman was a prostitute: the expensive fabric, the orchid in her hair, and the slipper teetering off of her pointed foot, to name a few. Historians and critics have long discussed the controversial reception of this painting, with more recent discussions turning to the representation of the maid as a ‘Mammy’ trope.
The painting is arguably Manet’s most significant work second to Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, and while much consideration has been given to ‘Olympia’ as she exists in the painting, comparatively less has been given to Victorine Meurent, the woman who modelled for the painting. Speaking of Dejeuner, Meurent was also the model for the nude in that work and several other paintings by Manet. She modelled for painters in Paris including Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but as Manet’s favourite model, her face dons some of the most iconic paintings in the history of art.
Born into a family of working-class artisans, Meurent was an aspiring artist at a young age. It wasn’t uncommon for artists to model for each other at this time and at age 18, she began to model for Manet. Her success as a model undoubtedly overshadowed her ambitions and though a select group was receptive to her artistic talents, her portrayal as a sexualised nude figure appears to have undermined her artistic legacy. What could be seen as a strong representation of a woman in control of her sexuality in Olympia was parlayed into a demerit on the character of the model.
Despite this setback, Meurent studied under portraitist Étienne Leroy and went on to have her work accepted for exhibition at the 1876 Salon – interestingly, Manet’s work was rejected this year. She continued to model throughout her career but also exhibited her own work at the Salon six times. She even exhibited alongside Manet in the 1879 show at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. With this degree of success, it’s curious that there are so few works to be found by Meurent now. There is some ambiguity around the kind of life she led, where the truth has likely been infiltrated by perceptions of her based on her modelling. Manet’s biographer claims that she led a life of debauchery, but this doesn’t line up with the fact that she was elected a member of the Société des Artistes Français in 1903.
Held back by classism and sexism, her story as an artist has been lost. Meurent was an independent woman who supported herself with her talents beyond what was perceived possible for a woman in her position. Yes, she has one of the most famous faces in the history of art, but she was also an artist.