Victorine Meurent (1844-1927) was a Parisian art model and painter best known as the subject of Edouard Manet's Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Manet made a promise to his favorite model – a promise in the form of a gratuity that she hoped never to have the need to collect, but clearly never forgot. Several months after Manet’s death in 1883, Meurent authored‡ the following letter to his widow explaining their arrangement and essentially, attempting to cash in.
In the letter, Meurent describes her relationship with Manet, indicating that he “took a great interest in her” and had often told her that if he sold his work, he’d make sure she was acknowledged financially. The proud and carefree working-class redhead had initially felt no need to collect any money he felt she deserved and traveled to America, later to return to Paris where she enjoyed occasional moderate success with her own paintings. However, she writes, the agreement still stood and she vowed to remember his promise when she was no longer able to pose. She describes how the last time she saw Manet, he had endeavored to see her hired at a theater and pay her what he owed, adding “you know the rest…”
Manet’s health declined rapidly and upon his death, Meurent silently decided never to trouble his widow with their agreement. However, in light of a desperate situation – having to care for her aging, unemployed mother and being, herself, unable to work due to a broken finger – Meurent humbly asks Madame Manet to remember her on her late husband’s behalf. Madame Manet, it was known, was in the process of arranging a sale of her late husband’s paintings. Sadly, the plea of Manet’s proud Olympia appears to have gone ignored, despite her assertion that Madame Manet’s own brother, Ferdinand Leenhoff, could confirm the agreement.1 Meurent struggled throughout her life for adequate recognition of her own work, which, as a woman in the male-dominated art world, she would never fully see.
The letter is from The Morgan’s Adolphe Tabarant Collection of manuscripts relating to Edouard Manet.
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‡ The letter appears possibly to not have been penned by Meurent herself, as her signature differs from the body of the letter in appearance and in ink, and her letter indicates that she currently suffers a broken finger on the right hand.
1 V. R. Main, “The naked truth,” The Guardian 3 Oct. 2008, 10 May 2011 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/oct/03/women.manet>
The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.