Author VR Main spoke to Matthew Cookson about her novel based on the life of Victorine Meurent
A Woman With No Clothes On is a new novel that depicts the life of Victorine Meurent.
Victorine was the model for some of Édouard Manet's most famous paintings. Art historians have dismissed her as a drunk and a prostitute, even though she was a talented artist in her own right.
VR Main was inspired to write a novel by Manet's 1863 painting Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Lunch on the Grass).
She said, 'It all started with the painting. I cannot recall when I first saw it, but it seems that it has always been with me. The picture is still an enigma.
'Each time I look at it, I have more questions than answers. Why is the woman in the foreground naked, while the two men are fully dressed?
'Why is she meeting the eye of the viewer in such a challenging manner? Above all, who are the four characters in the picture? What is their relationship to each other?
'To me, the most important feature in the picture, as well as the most puzzling enigma, is the gaze of the naked woman. Her eyes suggest an intelligent and independent person.
'I decided to find out about the painter and the model. I learned that the model, Victorine Meurent, became a painter, despite the fact that she came from a poor background and it was a time when women were not allowed to study at the Academie des Beaux Arts.
'And yet, Manet's biographers – all of them male – considered her a woman of low morality. When I learned about Victorine Meurent's artistic achievements – she was elected member of the academy of French artists and exhibited at the Salon on several occasions – I became very interested in her.
'I also learned that Manet, rich and aristocratic, preferred to use his family and friends to pose for him, people from his own social class, rather than hire models.
'His friends acknowledged that Victorine Meurent was his favourite model and he worked with her on nine paintings, two of which are his most famous. She must have had something more than just a naked body.
'Manet's biographers refused to accept that and without a shred of evidence, they claimed that she had died young. And, of course, they assumed that she was his mistress.
'But the truth was different – while the painter died at the age of 51, from complications resulting from his treatment for syphilis, the model lived to be 83.
'It was this discrepancy between what art historians claimed about her and what we could find out that spurred me to write the novel.
'I have tried to reclaim Victorine Meurent from history as a woman with talent and ambition who, against the odds, realises her dream. As such, she is a modern, feminist heroine.'
I asked VR Main if she thought Victorine's story tells us something about the position of women in 19th century society.
'It tells us a great deal and not just about the 19th century,' she replied. 'Then, as now, women were confined by their class and by their gender. And while gender equality and class mobility have improved enormously, there is still a long way to go.
'Some of my readers have worried about her ruthlessness, about her abandonment of her mother. In those ways, she is far from being likeable.
'But as a woman who knows what she wants and is prepared to work hard for it, while living in a less than ideal world, she is forced to make some hard choices. That, unfortunately, may still be the case of many women today.'
Paris produced a number of revolutionary artists in the 1860s. VR Main puts forward two suggestions as to why a 'major shift in perception such as Impressionism' appeared at the time.
'First, the second half of the 19th century was politically turbulent, with shifts from Napoleonic rule to the revolutionary Paris Commune and back.
'In times like that, when people feel disoriented, they look for meanings elsewhere. And painters and poets, such as Manet's friend Charless Baudelaire, were turning away from representing the past and insisting on responding to the world around them.
'Second, in the days before photography – not yet used on a mass scale – and film, painting was more important than today.
'It provided stories and meanings – the role that in our society has been taken over by the mass media. In Paris, people of all social classes regularly visited exhibitions and everyone talked about the work.'
In conclusion, VR Main tells me of an exciting discovery that could aid history's judgement of Victorine.
'Until recently, it was thought that none of Victorine's paintings had survived. However, only last month the municipal museum in Colombes, the Parisian suburb where Victorine lived the last 20 years of her life, took possession of one of her paintings.
'I went to see it recently and it is a portrait of a young woman holding a palm branch. It is fairly conventional but well painted by someone who was clearly accomplished at her craft.
'It will be on public view early in the new year. Perhaps it will mark the beginning of the reassessment of her contribution to Manet's work and modern painting in general.'
A Woman With No Clothes On by VR Main is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £14.99.
VR Main is introducing the novel at Bookmarks at 6.30pm, this Thursday 20 November, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1. For more information phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com