Manet's critics

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Pity poor Victorine Meurend. She was ridiculed in public as someone of "perfect ugliness". Her face was stupid and her skin cadaverous. "She does not have a human form," said one kind soul. No, indeed, said another. She was a yellow-bellied odalisque, a female gorilla, grotesque in India rubber. Pregnant women were warned not to look at her for fear of miscarriage. For weeks, the young French woman had to endure such comments.

She was a joke, a cynical spectacle. "Never has anything so I strange been hung on walls of an art exhibition."

Victorine might have been forgiven for muttering "Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Manet" under her breath. For she was Edouard Manet's model for the painting "Olympia". Posing as a naked prostitute, she had lain on a bed in a position that echoed Titian's "Venus of Orbino". Now she was on display in oils in Paris.

The vitriol the painting provoked in 1865 was as nasty as anything Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst has had to suffer. Critics' disgust interfered with their eyesight. They could not help themselves. They reviled Olympia's supposedly wrinkled feet, dirty hands and bloodshot eyes, while the painting itself was "a frightful confusion", a "hubbub of disparate colours and impossible forms".

What they did not see - aside from an attractive young redhead - was a breakthrough in art. Manet wanted to be "le peintre de la vie moderne" and rejected what he described as the "stews and gravies" of dull-brown classicism.

Perhaps Victorine was not bothered by the abuse. She had posed for Manet before, as the naked woman in "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe", a work that shocked almost as much as "Olympia".

She became a painter herself, but fame and fortune were denied her. Instead she earned a living making a monkey do tricks until she died in poverty in Montmartre.

Manet was luckier. Less than 12 months after his death, public and press changed their minds about him. At a huge exhibition in 1884, prices for his paintings far exceeded expectations. Though not, of course, reaching the multi-millions that his "female gorilla" would fetch today.

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