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One of the aspects of my art practice probes the domestic lives of women, lives of women both past and present, and what might be in the future.  I look for the extraordinary in the absolutely ordinary and mundane avenues of daily living for women, and especially those women who have been forgotten in the dialogue of history or silenced through circumstances beyond their control.  While studying for  my MFA I stumbled on to Victorine Meurent.  Victorine Meurent was the face and body behind Manet's infamous and iconic images, Olympia and Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe.  From previous undergraduate art history courses I knew that Manet's Olympia was considered the dividing line between Modernism and the Academy.  However, I did not know the model's name, nor, as an undergraduate student was I seduced into learning it.  We were simply told that "she", the model - with no name, was "just" a prostitute. How wrong the professor was.  How wrong art history was.  How wrong and misguided many of the writings of 19th century Paris art scene were. 

"She", Victorine Louise Meurent was not a prostitute.  Not even close, unless of course one suggests that all visual artists are prostitutes because they put themselves out there and sell their work, a piece of their soul, for a price.  She, Victorine Louise Meurent, was not only an artist in her own right but she also made her living from her art.  She sold her paintings and drawings through commercial galleries.  She played the violin in cafes and professionally modelled for other artists bedsides Manet, most notably Alfred Stevens, Norbet Goeneutte and Toulous-Lautrec.  And more importantly she was one of the first women admitted into the Academie Julian, a distinguished and widely recognized art school established in 1868, which produced many prominent and important visual artists well into the 20th century.  She was accepted and exhibited in the Salon six times and was invited to join the Societes Artistes Francais in 1903, again a prestigious organization.  Now one of her paintings hangs in a French Museum just 6 kilometers northwest of Paris.  In my research I finally understood that Victorine Meurent - the model with no name - the prostitute, was indeed an accomplished artist, a working, breathing, living artist who could hold her head high and say...

But she was a woman, a woman from the wrong social strata who could not even dare to think that she might be included in an invitational tea party with fellow women artists such as Berthe Morisot, who was besotted with Manet, or Mary Cassett, the American living in Paris  who befriended Degas.  All were contemporaries of Victorine.

During my rigorous investigation, Victorine Meurent became my friend, and I her advocate.  I learned that she had posed nine times for Manet.  All nine paintings were deemed masterpieces.  I was incensed to read that when Olympia was exhibited at the Salon des Refuses critics chose to malign, ridicule and then slander the model.  Later, I discovered that Victorine had traveled from Paris to New York when travel was considered an extraordinary adventure and certainly out of the reach for many 19th century Parisians.  I further found out that Manet's painting of Victorine, A Woman with a Parrot, was the first European painting to be accepted int New York's Metropolitan Museum.  I understood that Victorine was part of Manet's inner circle until she was cruelly tossed aside in 1873, after he had painted Gare Saint-Lazare and La Partie de Croquet.  And then, to add insult to injury, I realized that Victorine had been ripped out of art history by Manet's biographer, Alphonse Tabarant.   Tabarant, infatuated with Victorine, suggested she had died in her early forties.  Not true.  Facts revel that Victorine Meurent lived until the ripe old age of eighty-three.  Much is still to be learned from Victorine's life as well as the lives of other women who were silenced and written out of history. 

 In my final MFA thesis, {RE}reading Le Bain: collective conversations with Victorine Meurent, I proved that Manet had painted Olympia but it was Victorine Meurent who had created Manet.  As part of the studio component I traveled to Paris, recorded and retraced Victorine's footsteps, wearing a similar pair of boots that she had worn in the painting, A Woman with a Parrot


I wrote and hand-printed an edition of twenty-five books titled Erased, a series of fragmented poetics and images which narrated Victorine's life.  I sent a copy of Erased to the Canadian National Library.  The library accepted Erased and it is now part of the permanent special collection. 


I also created two place settings for Victorine with the same dimensions as the other thirty-nine women Judy Chicago had invited to sit at her iconic banquet table, The Dinner Party.  I sent one place setting to Chicago's foundation, Through the Flower and exhibited the second in Berlin.  Through the Flower's board accepted my palace setting and it is now part of their permanent collection. 


I designed a black "power suit", similar to what a prominent art historian might wear and began to deliver lectures on the model without a name, the model who was slandered and smeared by Parisian art Critics of the 1860's.  Along with a number of others, that includes the distinguished feminist art historian, Eunice Lipton, and the prominent Canadian art historian, Ross King, who lives near Oxford, England and wrote the books, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the painting of The Water Lilies, The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism,  Leonardo and the Last Supper, Brunelleschi's Dome and Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power  and  Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven.  I placed Victorine back into the annals of history.

And so it is, that because I now spend time in my imaginary gardens, I have wondered what fragments, threads, dots might be connected and framed within an entertaining and fanciful look at women's lives - some forgotten, some not - based on art and social history facts,  if my friend Victorine Meurent, would have hosted a garden party.  And why a garden party and not a dinner party?  A garden party could include many more people, both male and female from different stations of life, and might integrate all forms of the arts: drawing, painting, dance, music and writing.  And more significantly, it was in Alfred Steven's garden that Manet painted La Partie de Croquet, an image of Victorine, whom he placed front and centre,  playing croquet, and at that particular time, still very much part of Manet's inner circle of friends.

Who would Victorine Meurent invite to her garden party? Where would she host the party?  In Natalie Barney's garden, the garden in the courtyard, at 20 rue Jacob, in the 6th arrondissement, the Latin district of Paris where she held her famous "Fridays."  Or maybe in one of the hidden public gardens such as the Jardine de la Vallee Suisse where everything is not as it appears.  Would she invite Degas' ballet dancers or the can-can dancers from the Moulin Rouge in the heart of the Paris' bohemian district, Montmartre?  After all Toulouse-Lautrec, the short, aristocratic artist living near the Moulin Rouge who painted and drew can-can dancers, used to take Victorine's hand and lead her around and introduce her as Olympia.  She might include the Parisian milliners and the laundresses who ironed Manet's shirts and underwear.  I am quite certain she would not have invited Berthe Morisot and her sister, Edma who married Manet's brother, Eugene, as Berthe was not only smitten with Manet but also extremely jealous of Victorine.  Victorine would not have liked to create a scene.  

Would she invite Virginia Woolf who wrote about preparing for a dinner party?  Would she even invite Judy Chicago, especially after knowing that Ms. Chicago did not invite her to her dinner party?  Possibly.  What about Marie Bracquemond, Victorine's peer and a promising artist who was considered one of the "les trois grandes dames" (the other tow being Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot) of Impressionism. Sadly, because of her husband's insecurities, demands and maybe Alfred Steven's influence over her, Marie Bracquemond gave up painting.  What stories Victorine and Marie could share.

Would she invite Margaret Sanger, an American nurse who coined the phrase "birth control" and wanted to prevent self-induced and back-ally abortions.   Or would she invite the English gardner and friend of Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West.  Perhaps she may invite Virginia's sister, Vanessa Bell, who was also a painter, had an open marriage and was a member of the Bloomsbury Group.  Maybe she would invite Manet's wife Suzanne or his mother, Madame Manet, a woman who supported her husband, a judge whose job was to preside over paternal cases, even after he contracted syphilis, the dreaded disease that was rampant in Paris and the same sexually transmitted disease that Manet and a number of his friends contracted.  

Would she invite Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas or the Cone sisters, Etta and Claribel, from Baltimore who amassed a huge collection of avant-garde paintings and donated the collection to the Baltimore Museum.  If  Victorine had met the sisters, possibly at one of Natalie Barney's Fridays, they might have commissioned a portrait or purchased one of her images.   Then not only would an image of her end up in an important American museum, one of her own paintings would become part of a distinguished art collection in the United States. 

Victorine may make contact with Seraphine de Senlis, the French painter who walked the tightrope between madness and ecstasy.  Or she could invite women from the Society of Female Artists, many who exhibited their work but concealed their true identity with pseudonyms.  Camille Claudel, Lee Krasner and Alice Neel must surely be invited as well as Mrs. Delany, Mrs. de Kooning and Mrs. Wiener. 

Would Victorine have consulted Julia Childs or Alice B. Toklas or Mrs. Beaton on what to serve?   Or would she serve some of her favorite recipes, the strawberry tarts for example that Ms. Barney's housekeeper, Berthe Cleyrergue prepared for the Fridays.  Perhaps she could entrust Berthe to help with the selection and preparation of the food.  Berthe knew where to buy the best ingredients.  Berthe also recognized who one could count on to serve the dishes with a discreet and listening ear so that they might report to Victorine the free flowing conversations, dialogues and gossip as well as the whispered secrets and the allegiances formed during the garden part. 

Would she have special plates designed for the occasion, as Ms. Chicago did for her dinner party?  Victorine might be aware that Judy Chicago painted and decorated plates before she had other women make the distinctive plates for her banquet.

What would the invitations look like?  Would Victorine have hand-written them as she displayed beautiful penmanship in the letters she wrote to Suzanne, Manet's widow?  Or would she insert a notice into one of the broadsheets, such as Le Figaro that had besmirched her in 1863?  What year and month and day should Victorine give the garden party: during August when many bourgeois escape to sunnier climates or go "punting" on the Seine near the famous La Grenouille, translated as the frog pond?

Victorine Meurent lived an interesting life, a life that should not be forgotten as it was her face, her direct gaze that changed the course of painting history in the 19th century.   I would have enjoyed sharing a cup of tea with her.