Reviewed: Alias Olympia, A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire

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Reviewed: Alias Olympia, A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire
September is here and summer is gone – along with those long lazy days of vacation-beach book heaven. Ah – to escape once more into a juicy adventure set in Paris (and plan for the next Parisian adventure). What is your favorite story about Paris? Is it a memoir or a novel? My favorite is Eunice Lipton’s Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire, published almost 25 years ago and still as fresh as the day the ink dried on its 181 pages. It’s a scrumptious indulgence that satisfies my cravings for mystery, innovative narrative structure and harmless gossip. For within this perfect travel-size book (slim and light), hefty truths drive the reader’s lust for revelation. No spoilers here – so trust me: I will not divulge the secret ending of this authentic detective caper dedicated to giving Édouard Manet’s best known model her rightful place in history. Lipton knows her stuff (even though she freely confesses to her doubts and foibles). I bought the book to learn about Victorine Meurent (1844-1927) who posed for Édouard Manet’s infamous painting: Olympia, when I embarked on my first Impressionism course over a decade ago. This semester I am teaching two courses on 19th century Modernism that include Manet and his muse. So – back to Lipton’s book I went to prep for the powerpoints and savor once again the piquancy of her text. Lipton’s primary gift is her style, which transforms dry-as-dust academic information into appetizing prose. We taste Paris as we trudge with her through various venues on her quest for Victorine’s archival remains: birth and death certificates; her various official registrations. Beginning with the publication of her doctoral dissertation Picasso Criticism, 1901-1939: The Making of an Artist-Hero (Garland Publishing, 1976), Lipton’s erudite voice has grown more intimate and informal, as though she were engaging our rapt attention over dinner. Her willingness to share her emotional rollercoaster draws us in. “The search for Victorine is slow,” Lipton writes. “There are days when it’s easygoing and full of pleasure, and others when I bog down in paralysis and nausea.” Victorine may have seduced Lipton into a love affair with one of art history’s most enigmatic characters, but this one confession made me fall in love with Lipton, who is also a character in this biography cum memoir. For I too know the pleasure and the pain of pursuing research in Paris. Lipton’s honesty is her most seductive asset. Victorine Meurent was Manet’s favorite model during his rebellious 1860s. She is a naked woman among the picnicking artists and models in Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass, Musée d’Orsay, 1863), the haughty prostitute in Olympia completed in the same year (Musée d’Orsay), the suggestive Street Singer stuffing her mouth with cherries and clutching a guitar against a much covered genital region (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1862), the swashbuckling Mademoiselle Victorine in a Matador’s Costume (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862), and the coquettishly inviting Woman with a Parrot (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1866). Known to her peers as a model, cabaret singer and violin/guitar teacher, Victorine-Louise Meurent was also an artist in her own right, whose work had been accepted by the highly competitive Salon six times, from 1876 to 1904 (the same years Manet and his Impressionist pals were roundly rejected). We can find her name among the artists in the brochures, but her work seems to have completely disappeared. She joined the stodgy Société des Artistes Français in 1903. Victorine’s imperious expression in Manet’s works made this rebellious artist famous. He decided on the direct, reciprocal gaze that eschewed any pretense of demure, lady-like reception. Rather, Victorine brazenly meets our gawking stare, implying she too is conducting her appraisal. Neither vacant nor vacuous, her eyes betray her active thinking and a bit of blasé boredom leaking through the cracks of her glacial masquerade. We in turn might imagine her real existence beyond the canvas, because her expression seems so candid, so unrehearsed, so carelessly on display. Art historians might wonder if this cheeky mien represents Manet’s commentary on the irrelevance of traditional Grand Manner history painting in the midst of modernizing France. As a sword-wielding espada, Victorine Meurent may comment on the dangers of Modern Women, who would eventually demand equal rights, the vote and equal pay. In this respect, Manet’s petite redhead projected something unfamiliar, even subversive and not a little bit scary. Manet achieved this menacing immediacy by refusing to compromise Victorine’s distinct beauty. She may have posed like a Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) in Olympia, but she would never pass as a classical ideal inspired by her antique antecedents from ancient Greek and Rome. Instead, her demeanor bears the mark of a bona fide working-class gamine, the daughter of a bronze-polisher and small-time milliner, schooled in the ways of her fellow street urchins who too breathed in the sooty pollution of 19th-century urban air. Perhaps, it is her mouth that conveys an uppity commonness shaped by her native intelligence and uncharted moral compass. Manet knew that his interpretation of Victorine’s body felt provocative in all kinds of ways to all kinds of spectators, particularly bourgeois men who actively sought out such female company behind theater and exhibition halls. Olympia,…
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Lead photo credit : Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire, by Eunice Lipton, Cornell University Press, 1992.

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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 Purchase College in Westchester, New York. She has recently published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art."