This picture by Edouard Manet — one of the most arresting portraits in the Museum of Fine Arts — shows a young woman called Victorine Meurent, with a black ribbon around her neck and a dashingly painted blue ribbon in her hair.
If she looks familiar, it’s because she sat for other pictures by Manet, several of which are now among the most notorious paintings in the world. In “Olympia,” Meurent posed as a prostitute, entirely naked but for the black ribbon around her neck (the same one she wears here?) and a satin slipper on her foot. In “The Luncheon on the Grass” she posed, naked again, at a picnic, surrounded by two clothed men.
In “Mlle V. . . in the Costume of an Espada” she posed as a bullfighter in very unsuitable shoes. And in the “Street Singer,” also owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, she stands outside a tavern holding a guitar and a bunch of cherries.
All four are full-throttled masterpieces (their status enhanced, inevitably, by the ferocity with which they were savaged in the press at the time). But they were also “problem pictures.”
In each case, Manet was up to something — or multiple things, really — and part of why history has attached such weight and meaning to these bigger paintings of Victorine is that people have never been able to pin down just what he was thinking. That’s just as Manet wanted it, of course, but the reasons have less to do with an interest in hidden meanings and concealed profundity than with his love of disguises, fancy dress, and playful homages to the things he loved.
One of the things he loved (although perhaps platonically) was Victorine Meurent. It’s good to look at this small portrait, away from the distractions of those hypnotic problem pictures, because we get to see Victorine clearly, as Manet saw her, in the very year he met her.
She’s lovely, isn’t she? Reddish hair, blonde eyelashes, healthy skin that takes the light well. We can see up close the abrupt transitions from light to dark that Manet’s critics found so abrasive: The end of her nose and her chin are not so much modeled, with carefully graduated intermediate tones, as briskly indicated; this bit light, this part dark. Voila!
Meurent was 18 at the time, the year was 1862, and artist and subject had just met on a crowded street, where Manet was struck, he later said, by her “unusual appearance and decided air.”
She was a working-class girl, but she had enough money to be independent (she never married) and she could play the guitar. She was an artist’s model, who had posed already for Thomas Couture, Manet’s old teacher.
She took up painting in the 1870s, and was talented enough to get her work hung in the juried annual Salon of 1876 (ironically, the same year Manet was rejected).
In her youth, she was clearly not lacking in self-confidence. She had a whimsical manner, according to those who knew her, but an ability to call things by their real name, and to meet every gaze with the resistance of her full being, in a way that Manet founding enthralling.
And which continues to enthrall us.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.