SPOTLIGHT STORIES

Manet's Model

The story behind a famous face

During the 1860s Edouard Manet was inspired by the sight of a woman with a guitar emerging from a disreputable café. The female musician refused to pose for the picture, so Manet employed a woman named Victorine Meurent (1844-1927). She happened to be a guitarist and singer, so was well-suited to model for a painting of this subject.

Meurent, only 18 years of age at the time, would become the central figure in many of Manet's greatest and most famous paintings.

Detail of STREET SINGER, 1860s by Edouard Manet (collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Meurent emerged as Manet's favorite model during the 1860s and early 1870s, posing for works including his renowned Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass , both in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Detail of OLYMPIA, 1863 by Edouard Manet (collection: Musée d'Orsay, Paris)
Detail of LUNCHEON ON THE GRASS [Le déjeuner sur l'herbe],1863 by Edouard Manet (collection: Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

This portrait is thought to be Manet's first portrait of Victorine from about 1862.

PORTRAIT OF VICTORINE MEURENT, 1862, by Edouard Manet (collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

She is also depicted in Manet's large-scale paintings which include the curious Young Lady in 1866 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

YOUNG LADY IN 1866 by Edouard Manet (collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) 

Six years later Manet featured Meurent once again for a contemporary, out-of-doors scene The Railway set at the famous Gare Saint–Lazare in Paris, although the station itself is all but obscured from view by the figures, the railway steam, and the iron fence. In this composition, Meurent's appears well-dressed, and comfortably balancing a puppy, open book and fan on her lap. According to the curators at the National Gallery of Art, the child model was "the daughter of a fellow painter who allowed Manet to use his garden to create The Railway."

THE RAILWAY, 1873 by Edouard Manet, oil on canvas (collection: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Detail of THE RAILWAY, 1873 by Edouard Manet (collection: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

The differences in the figures' age, dress, body language and even their relationship to each other adds an air of mystery to the painting. Curious too, is the immediacy of Meurant direct glance which seems to have shifted a moment earlier from her book directly towards us, the viewer.

This was last work by Manet in which Meurent appears. Apparently, they fell out over her desire to become an artist in her own right. The talented and ambitious Meurent had begun pursuing her studies to Manet's disappointment. She later led a successful career as a painter. Sadly, almost none of her work exists today. A single painting, only recently discovered, hangs in the Musée municipal d'Art et d'Histoire de Colombes [Colombes History Museum] in France.

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