Into the Depths of Modernity

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As my favorite painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) has appeared on my blog on multiple occasions. There is just so much to say about this daring artwork by Manet. When I look at this memorable creation, I can’t help but admire its breathtaking evocation of modernity, its mesmerizing rendering of the truths of the contemporary mid-19th C. city. Echoing the writings of Baudelaire, the French poet and art critic, Manet paints a work that delves into the concept of beauty being of the present. Manet renders the world and the people of his day.

This becomes evident when one gazes at the figure of Victorine Meurent. Victorine Meurent, an artist’s model and an artist in her own right, is painted in the nude, surrounded by men fully clothed. Rather than be covered up, her blue hued garments are cast off to the side, as her naked light skin glistens in the glow of an invisible light source. Rather than be portrayed uncomfortable, her posture indicates a sense of freedom and relaxation, with her elbow leaning against her knee and her hand cupping her chin in thought. Rather than be timid and fearful, she is bold and not ashamed. She is shown as a modern woman of the city, someone who does not abide by the gender norms of the past.

Manet does not depict a scene that conforms to academic traditionality, but chooses to depict a scene of authenticity, of everyday 19th C. life.

With a thick usage of paint, the dark, powerful eyes of Meurent look at you, the viewer, directly. Heightened by a slight upturn of the lips, her countenance evokes this sense of confidence and knowledge about the world and the people who reside within in it. Her gaze is a gaze of art’s future, of modernity, of a rejection of the conservative, of the truth. She does not look down. She looks up.

The Woman Behind the Painting

While looking at an artistic masterpiece, fascination cannot help but arise within me when I take a look at the painted persons in the work that move with such an unforgettable presence, that speak with magnificent tones, that feel the surroundings, relationships, and emotions that live amongst them, that stare with storytelling eyes of depth, that travel on journeys to breathtaking lands, and that wear fashions that are significant in the themes and stories they notably emanate. Fascination cannot help but arise within me, especially when I take a deeper look at these painted persons, when I take a look at the females behind the painting, the female models that dazzle with a vital presence.

The models that are painted in artistic works have always captured my attention–who were they? Where were they from? What is their story? I have always been mesmerized by the lives of these interesting females, always intrigued by their movements and sights in daily life…the historic moments that they witnessed, the talents that they came across, the occupations that they delved into, the lives they carried out. I have always been mesmerized by these models who wear fashions that are so important to works of art…fashions of embroidered, velvet gowns, as well as feminine, airy summer dresses, fashions of magnificently wide, patterned skirts, as well as modernly defined, freshly cut slacks, fashions of conservative evening wears, as well as coquettish, bold undergarments.

Victorine Meurent is one of these models that capture my attention.

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Manet, Edouard (1832-1883) - The Street Singer, 1862, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Victorine Meurent was a famous model for painters such as Edgar Degas, Alfred Stevens, and especially, Édouard Manet. Born to a family of artisans, Meurent came from a poor, working-class background. She began modeling at the age of sixteen with Thomas Couture, as well as performing musically in cafés during her years. And she had a powerful desire and firm ambition to make a name for herself as a female artist (which she did succeed in fulfilling by taking painting classes at the Académie Julian and having her works appear at the 1876 Salon and other future exhibitions). Meurent was known as Manet’s favorite model, appearing in numerous, gender-breaking works, that defied the constraints and moral commonalities of society. In these works, the modern desires and personalities of both Meurent and Manet rise to the surface. Meurent’s own independence appears, her desire to tear away at gender norms and to succeed in a profession not readily acceptant of women, her desire to live a life uncommon for women at the time in society and to paint freely, without restriction. Manet’s naturalistic depiction of the world appears, his creative, avant-garde mindset that wanted to challenge the traditional rules around him.

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The fashions in these works help to further reveal these thoughts of autonomy and conviction and these actions of rebellion and defiance. In Manet’s works such as Young Lady in 1866…(shown above), Victorine Meurent is depicted wearing a pale pink, satin dressing gown, a peignoir, that is only meant to be seen and worn indoors. This visibly intimate article of undress and Meurent’s teasing pose help to signify both Meurent’s and Manet’s modern outlooks on society and life, in general. Meurent is not painted with the following and praise of conservative, customary guidelines–Meurent is painted as a woman with a brazen attitude and a seductive stance, a woman of a modern era. With the fashionable item of the peignoir worn, the alluring quality of boldness within Meurent is shown.

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In Manet’s works such as Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe)…(as previously shown in my May inspiration post, Barriers and Constraints are Broken), Meurent is depicted as a woman unafraid of judgements and established traditions. She is depicted as a woman who is proud of herself, her mind and her body, and uncaring of the rules society enforces. Meurent’s lack of clothing, along with the background female’s sheer white day dress, contrasting with the full contemporary day wear fashions of constrictive black coats and collard shirts worn by the surrounding men, further emphasizes Meurent’s own personal desire to break gender restrictions and Manet’s wish to remove restrictive moral conventionalities from expression. Victorine Meurent stares at the viewer with an aura of calmness, confidence, and modernity, demolishing female stereotypes and embracing liberation.

The female figures are fascinating in artistic works…

And the lives these women (models) behind the paintings really lived are just as fascinating.