Imagining The Power Of Edouard Manet's 'Very Active Muse'

Imagining The Power Of Edouard Manet's 'Very Active Muse'

3:04pm Apr 25, 2015
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Emily Jan / NPR
  • Paris red promo 1

    Emily Jan / NPR

  • Maureen Gibbon's previous novels are Swimming Sweet Arrow and Thief. Her writings have also appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Mail, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Playboy and others.

    Maureen Gibbon's previous novels are Swimming Sweet Arrow and Thief. Her writings have also appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Mail, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Playboy and others.

    Jennifer Skoog / Courtesy of W.W. Norton

Victorine Meurent was just 17 years old when she met the great Impressionist painter Edouard Manet on a Paris street in 1862. The young, poverty-stricken redhead became his favorite model, and Manet painted her reclining nude in Olympia — a work that scandalized the Paris art world in 1865 and now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay. Meurent is also depicted in Manet's Luncheon on the Grass and other paintings.

Meurent was not a passive muse, author Maureen Gibbon tells NPR's Scott Simon. The transformative relationship between model and artist is at the heart of Gibbon's new novel, Paris Red.

"Whatever energy went back and forth between them in [Manet's] studio must have been terrifically powerful," Gibbon says. "It really changed the way he painted. And as a result, art changed."


Interview Highlights

Why it was important to tell Victorine Meurent's story

I saw Olympia when I was a young woman. It had an effect on me and I kept the painting in the back of my mind for years. At a certain point, I became more aware of the real-life person in the painting. When I began to learn a little bit about [Meurent's] story, the painting just deepened for me and I thought I had a particular insight into her. She was a young, working-class woman, and I think she was — like many young people today — trying to make her way in the Paris of the 1860s.

I wanted to picture her not as a prostitute, which is how some critics have chosen to see her or talk about her.

On Meurent's effect on Manet

That question really drives the novel. When I was researching, I found just a little mention in an article about how in an X-ray of "Olympia," you can see that the face of the model has been scraped and reworked. And the person writing the article thought that it was reasonable to think that there had been a model before Victorine Meurent. When I read that, I saw all kinds of possibilities as a novelist. And what it really made me understand ... about the painting is something really unique happened when Manet met Victorine. She, I believe, is the reason he was able to complete Olympia.

So I see her as being a very active muse. And whatever energy went back and forth between them in his studio must have been terrifically powerful. It really changed the way he painted. And as a result, art changed. And I find that very moving. I never liked the idea of the passive muse. And I think that she was, while not standing behind the canvas placing paint, she was nevertheless really active in what happened in those paintings.

Listen to the interview to hear Maureen Gibbon read an excerpt from her novel.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Who's really reflected in a portrait - the person or the painter? Victorine is a young woman, just 17, who lives in Paris when she meets Edouard Manet, one of the great impressionist painters, on the street. Now, he would go on to make her his "Olympia," the woman at the center of a painting that would shock the Paris art world in the 1860s and now hangs in the Musee d'Orsay. But who was the real young woman with red hair and green boots who turned her image over to the artist? The relationship between model and artist, muse and the music of art, is at the heart of Maureen Gibbon's new novel "Paris Red." She joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in Bemidji, Minn. Thanks so much for being with us.

MAUREEN GIBBON: I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: What made you want to tell this story?

GIBBON: I saw "Olympia" when I was a young woman. It had an effect on me, and I kept the painting in the back of my mind for years. At a certain point, I became more aware of the real-life person in the painting, Victorine Meurent. When I began to learn little bit about her story, the painting just deepened for me, and I thought I had a particular insight into her.

SIMON: What was your particular insight, do you think?

GIBBON: You know, she was young, working-class woman, and I think she was like many young people today trying to make her way in the Paris of the 1860s.

SIMON: Yeah, she's working in a factory - she and her friend - when they met.

GIBBON: Yes, yes, that's the life I gave to her. I wanted to picture her not as a prostitute, which is how some critics have chosen to see her or talk about her.

SIMON: I want you - get you to read a very nice section in the book, and it says Manet has begun to sketch Victorine in pastels preparatory to making the oil portrait. If you could read a section because for the first time, he turns the easel to her so she can see what he's doing with her image.

GIBBON: Yes. (Reading) Is that really what I look like? I do not know how to talk about what I see, so I say why did you make my stocking blue? Because your hair is russet; because the wall is yellow, he says. Because white has blue in it, anyway. I am not sure I understand what he means, but it makes me think back to the day he added the reflection in the window on my drawing. That day he turned the white paper into glass with gray pencil strokes. Still, all I really know is the blue stocking is maybe the prettiest thing in the drawing - almost as pretty as the rounded tops of my breasts.

SIMON: This section raised for me the question to what degree are Manet and his model collaborators, and to what degree is he the artist and almost anyone could be standing there, reclining there, before him?

GIBBON: You know, that question really drives the novel. And when I was researching, I found just a little mention in an article about how in an X-ray of "Olympia," you can see that the face of the model has been scraped and reworked. And the person writing the article thought that it was reasonable to think that there had been a model before Victorine Meurent. When I read that, you know, I saw all kinds of possibilities as a novelist. And what it really made me understand and think about the painting is something really unique happened when Manet met Victorine. She - I believe - is the reason he was able to complete "Olympia." So I see her as being a very active muse. And whatever energy went back and forth between them in his studio must have been terrifically powerful. It really changed the way he painted, and as a result, art changed, and I find that very moving. I never liked the idea of the passive muse. And I think that she was - well, not standing behind the canvas placing paint, she was nevertheless really active in what happened in those paintings.

SIMON: Maureen Gibbon - her new novel is "Paris Red." Thanks so much for being with us.

GIBBON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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