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The wall labels of painted portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC make it clear who’s VIP: the sitter’s name appears first in large, boldface letters, the artist’s name trails at the bottom as the conclusion of the explanatory text. But in most museums, galleries, books, and auction houses, we frame our perception of a painting by its maker; who features in an artwork is mostly anecdotal.
This certainly holds true for the many women immortalized on the canvases of 19th-century avant-garde painter, Édouard Manet. We praise Manet for his paintings that shattered conventions of realism and decorum, turning art history on its head, but the identities of the women he asked to model for these radical artistic statements have been blurred in his painterly margins.
Below are introductions to six of the women who modeled for the masterpieces that earned Manet his canonical bad boy reputation. They were professional models, women glimpsed on the street, artists, lovers, and friends — each with an independent story to tell outside the gilded framework of being a shadowy muse.
Suzanne Leenhoff Manet (1830–1906)
“There was something very special about Mme Manet: the gift of kindness, simplicity, candor of spirit; an unruffled serenity,” recalled Giuseppe de Nittis, an Italian Impressionist painter, of his friend’s wife. “In her slightest words, one felt the deep love she had for her charming enfant terrible of a husband.”
The pair met in the early 1850s when the Manet family hired her, a Dutch pianist, as a music tutor. Shortly after, Suzanne gave birth to a son who was raised as her younger brother (in order to avoid explaining the identity of his father), but is generally considered to be Édouard Manet’s son, although he never publicly acknowledged his paternity. The two had a discrete relationship for over a decade before Édouard finally married Suzanne in 1863, after the death of his father.
While Suzanne was arguably his most convenient model, Édouard only painted five of portraits of her, and frequently turned his brush on some of the other women in his life.
Victorine Meurent (1844–1927)
In the eight works that Manet painted of Victorine Meurent — his favorite model between 1862 and 1872 — she was a cherry-eater, a red-headed matador, a guitarist, and a nanny. More famously, though, she was a woman who picnicked in the nude and a prostitute in the two works that permanently secured Manet’s notoriety in art history textbooks: “Luncheon on the Grass” (1862-63) and “Olympia” (1863). When “Luncheon on the Grass” was first exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, Meurent became scandalously known by name, which was unusual for models at the time. This salacious reputation has dominated Meurent’s legacy, who was an artist in her own right and exhibited multiple times in the Paris Salon.
Born to a working class family, Meurent modeled for artists such as Edgar Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to support herself in Paris. By 1875 she was taking evening classes at a private art school, the Académie Julian, and the following year her self-portrait was accepted for exhibition at the illustrious Paris Salon. She would exhibit at the Salon three more times, including 1879, when her work hung in the same room as a Manet.
Sometime in 1862, Manet jotted down a short line in his notebook: “Laure, very beautiful negress, rue Vintimille, 11, 3rd floor.” There is much left unsaid in those few words — who was Laure, where did Manet meet her, and did he ever climb those flights of stairs to see her again? But Laure’s lore generally identifies her as the woman who modeled as the turbaned nanny in “Children in the Tuileries Gardens” (1862), sat for a portrait study the following year, and, finally, modeled as the attendant in “Olympia” (albeit never simultaneously with Victorine Meurent).
The scarce details about Laure match her position in French society at the time. The French government had formally abolished slavery only 15 years before Manet painted “Olympia,” and Laure is often interpreted as representing French colonialist and racist discourses.
Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)
Manet painted Impressionist Berthe Morisot 11 times between 1868 and 1874 — more than his wife, or cherished model Victorine Meurent — but never as an artist. Instead, he painted her voyeuristically on a balcony (with Fanny Claus), reclining on bourgeois sofas, and intently gazing back as she does in “Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets” (1872). The latter is considered one of Manet’s masterpieces, showcasing his fearless use of black (which was then being avoided by the Impressionists), even using black for the irises of the green-eyed Morisot.
Morisot was an accomplished professional artist who exhibited multiple times in the Paris Salon and in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. (The two had met, in fact, at the Louvre when they were both copying paintings.) There are theories about a romantic infatuation between the two, but ultimately Morisot married Manet’s younger brother, Eugène, after which point Édouard never painted her again.
Eva Gonzalès (1849–1883)
As an active member of Parisian creative circles, Manet knew and painted portraits of contemporary female artists. However, he only ever depicted Eva Gonzalès, his sole formal student, with the tools of their shared trade. Gonzalès was a burgeoning artist when she first met Manet at age 20, at the home of Belgian painter Alfred Stevens. She then regularly went to Manet’s studio for the dual purpose of modeling and receiving instruction for her own work. Her life-size portrait took a year (he couldn’t get her face quite right), and was eventually exhibited at the 1870 Paris Salon as “Portrait of Mlle. E.G.” That same year, Gonzalès exhibited “L’Enfant de Troupe” (1870) at the Salon, a work reminiscent of Manet’s “The Fife.”
WhileManet depicts Gonzalès in the act of painting, it also reads as a conventional feminine portrait. She wears a low-cut and impractical white dress, pinning her as the object of beauty — not a painter of beautiful objects. She looks like a hobbyist painting on an elaborately carpeted floor instead of in a studio, dabbling with a floral still life and daintily holding paintbrushes like accessories. A few years later, Gonzalès would distance herself from Manet before her career was cut short by her untimely death following childbirth at age 34.
Méry Laurent (1849–1900)
According to George Moore, an Irish novelist who was a friend of Manet’s, Méry Laurent was “the daughter of a peasant, and the mistress of all the great men of that time.” Those great men included, of course, Manet, who met Laurent in April of 1876 and thereafter made her his favorite late-career model (and likely also his mistress). Laurent posed for seven Manet pastels, and appeared as the only figure wearing white in the background of “A Bar at the Folies- Bergère” (1882). “What was so rememberable about her was her pleasure in life, and her desire to get all the pleasure, and her consciousness of her desire to enjoy every moment of her life,” Moore continued.
Laurent came from humble beginnings. She was married off to a grocer at age 15, but soon left him to join a cabaret review in Paris. She later became an actress, artist’s model, and mistress of a wealthy American dentist who kept her in a posh Parisian apartment (that she decorated with Manets). She held a popular literary salon at that flat, frequented by figures such as Marcel Proust and Emile Zola who used her as inspiration for characters in poems and novels. After Manet’s death, Laurent bought his portrait of her, “Autumn” (1882), at his estate sale and bequeathed it to the museum in her hometown of Nancy.