Spotlight on Laure, Manet’s Other Model in “Olympia” in the Musée d’Orsay

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Spotlight on Laure, Manet’s Other Model in “Olympia” in the Musée d’Orsay
A few months ago, Hazel Smith wrote a superb article about Victorine Meurent, the favorite model of Édouard Manet during the 1860s. I followed up with a review of Eunice Lipton’s book Alias Olympia, which weaves together an imagined journal written by Victorine and the New York art historian Lipton’s adventures as she tracked down proof of the model’s existence. Victorine’s face and body captured the modern white woman’s claim to power through sexual congress: not only the physical but also the mental. She dared to stare with a touch of arrogance from a body unfettered by clothing (society’s armor). The best-known examples are Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia (both completed in 1863), currently on view in the Musée d’Orsay. Today, scores of pages lavish attention on this brazen red-head while ignoring her companion, the black maid who holds the copious bouquet of flowers that brighten up this severe composition. Let us now shine our light on Laure (sometimes referred to as Laura), the other model in Manet’s infamous painting of brothel life in 19th-century Paris. Her presence, along with the featured prostitute, projects the scope of modernity in Paris that accompanied Baron Haussmann’s renovations in the 1860s. Fortunately, within the last few years, three substantial studies dedicated to Laure have pieced together her life and times: Emma Jacob, in her unpublished senior thesis for Vassar College, and Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby in Art Bulletin (December 2015). Most recently, Denise M. Murrell presented a paper on Laure during the 2017 College Art Association conference in New York City, which I had the good fortune to attend. Thanks to their work, I can write about Laure’s career in art and speculate a bit beyond their illuminating endeavors. What do we know about Laure, this sparsely documented woman of color who posed for one of the most reviled artists in his day? In her 1999 book Differencing the Canon, art historian Griselda Pollock claims that she found a birth certificate for a woman named “Laure” dated April 19, 1839. No race or nationality is provided. If this person was indeed Manet’s model, Laure might have been born in France to parents from a Francophone region in Africa or the Caribbean. We know that she lived at 11 rue de Vintimille, in today’s 9th arrondissement, residing on the third floor (French style), according to Manet’s jottings in an 1862 notebook. This fact has been verified by a rental agreement located in municipal archives. While Laure modelled for Olympia, she would have walked all the way to Manet’s studio at 81 rue Guyot, renamed rue Médéric, in the 17th arrondissement, about 30 minutes along Boulevard des Batignolles and Boulevard de Courcelles (given this name in 1864). We believe that Laure sat for Manet as early as 1861, beginning with Children in the Tuileries, 1861-2 (Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art). Some art historians claim that he met her while working as a nanny. Eunice Lipton imaged the situation differently, describing Laure as a friend of Victorine Meurent who recommended her to Manet for the painting. Another possibility may be that Laure modeled for the students in Thomas Couture’s atelier, where Manet trained from 1850-1856. My guess is that Laure was a nanny and model for a select group of haut-bourgeois artists who knew her employers. In Children in the Tuileries, Manet placed her in a situation that seems quite familiar to an artist from the upper class: well-dressed children frolicking through the park with a governess or older sibling overseeing their every move. Children in the Tuileries seems to anticipate Manet’s larger work Concert in the Tuileries of 1862, wherein no servants (therefore no women or men of color) appear within our point of view. The difference between the two paintings marks the difference in social occasions. Daily romps in the Tuileries would be supervised by babysitters, whereas concerts offered social networking. The fashionable clothing tells it all. In Children, we notice a slender black tree separates a black nanny and her young charge from a group of well-dressed bourgeois children who walk in unison with their backs to the audience, overlapping in white pleated frocks like modernized Greek muses. They are female and harmonious, connected by gender, class and painted surfaces. On the other side of the tree, Manet’s integrates Laure’s soft pastel pink dress into the creamy pyramid of her little client whose sprightly cocked hat is rendered simply in black and brown—a brown that blends into her nanny’s exposed arm. In paint and in life, Manet shows us that they belong to each other. Aware that the central group of girls commands the viewers’ attention, Manet cleverly enlivened the right edge with Laure’s deep rose-colored turban, saving her from pictorial oblivion. What might we glean from this decision? Is Laure a social indicator (a “marker” art historians tend to say these days)? Yes, she conveys an aspect of Manet’s interpretation of urban modernity: the park, the fashionably dressed occupants, and the influx of non-white immigrants into the community, bringing into the homogenous character of France this new element of diversity. Iconographically, Laure’s separation from the group reminds us that the new “post-slavery” black in France may seem integrated into modern Paris, but she is still marginalized and not fully assimilated into French society, despite her western clothing. A Negress, also known as Portrait of Laure, 1862-5 (Pinoteca Giovanni e Marcello Agnelli, Turin) may be a preparatory sketch for Olympia’s black maid or a genuine attempt…

Lead photo credit : Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863 (debuted in the Paris Salon in 1865) Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.


  • Katherine Bond
    2018-12-06 18:13:50
    Katherine Bond
    This is so helpful! I do think Bazille's painting is Laure, based on the shape of her ears, but it may be wishful thinking on my part as I'm including her as a character in a novel.


  • queenbeetv
    2018-02-08 15:03:25
    Great article! Very informative and thought provoking.


  • J. Fernando Ochoa
    2017-03-02 14:48:08
    J. Fernando Ochoa
    What a wonderful and informative article....Thank you for sharing it with us....Jaime


  • Bear Kosik
    2017-03-02 13:59:23
    Bear Kosik
    Fascinating, well-constructed article on a subject that mirrors today's difficulties in representing POC in art and entertainment. I would love to see more essays like this one and the one on Olympe de Gouges in the weekly newsletter. By coincidence, I am writing a play about Olympe de Gouges.