When you walk through a museum, the sum total of what you see is greater than a collection of oil paints, brush strokes, and ornate gold frames. Often enough, the anonymous models that painters chose for their pivotal artworks lived ordinary lives that went largely unrecorded—but one writer has vowed to tell these lost stories.
Meet the model who's made her way into some of the world's best and biggest museums.
With her new book, The Parisian Sphinx, Summer Brennan uncovers the life story of Victorine Meurent, a queer female painter in 19th-century Paris who was immortalized in the work of Édouard Manet—but who was frequently and falsely written off as a prostitute who posed for paintings for extra money.
"When too many historians and storytellers are white men, you don't always get to see people between the pages."
"I was fascinated by finding out who she was," Brennan says. "I had read that she had been an artist, but at that time, all of her paintings were lost. There's a quote from somewhere—it's much easier for a woman to get into a museum as a naked body on a canvas than with her own work."
After Brennan announced an Indiegogo campaign for her book research, she was met with an outpouring of support, and eventually raised more than $40,000—well over her goal. As she continues to research in Paris and uncover pieces of Meurent's life, she is helping the world to find out just a little bit more about a woman whose impressive life work was largely forgotten by history.
"In general, sometimes people think women's stories are just chick flicks, or too niche," Brennan says. "When too many historians and storytellers are white men, you don't always get to see people between the pages."
Brennan shared some of her favorite findings about Meurent below.
Surprise No. 1: Historians Basically Buried Her Alive
For a long time, art historians simply wrote off Meurent as a prostitute who died young. "In the 1970s, one historian went through some archives and found addresses where she'd lived—at that time, the narrative was still that she had died before the age of 40," says Brennan. "She lived through the first World War, until 1927, but in the teens there were art historians writing about how she was dead—meanwhile, she was in her 70s going to the market and going about her life."
"It's a really common trope, this idea of the beautiful woman who rises from the gutter and then dies tragically."
Because Meurent was unmarried and a lesbian who lived out her life with her longtime partner in the suburbs of Paris, many of her contemporaries saw her as a destitute woman—and this is how she is recorded in the annals of history. "It's a really common trope, this idea of the beautiful woman who rises from the gutter and then dies tragically before she gets old enough to have crow's-feet," Brennan says.
Surprise No. 2: She Was an Artist—Whose Work Rivaled the Greats
Meurent may be most famous for appearing in paintings, but she knew her way around a canvas, too. "She got famous for being in Manet's paintings, but there was a year when the Salon de Paris accepted her work, but they rejected Manet's work," explains Brennan. "That's one thing that surprises people—that she was of the caliber, at least at the time, of these men that made her image famous."
Surprise No. 3: She Went Corset-Free
Before bra-burning existed as a concept in anyone's mind, Meurent ignored one of the biggest physical constraints of women at the time: the corset. "I don't know that I want to brand that as a feminist thing because in a way, they were kind of like the bras of the 19th century—not everyone can get away with running around without one on," says Brennan. "You can actually tell in a bunch of her clothed portraits that were made by her friend Alfred Stevens—you see her slouching in a way that you can't do if you're wearing a corset."
Surprise No 4: She Lived an Unconventional Life for the Time
The fact that Meurent was a female artist positioned her in a way that led historians to ignore her—and the fact that she was a queer female artist made her story even more buried. "We're finally at a point where her story can be really candidly told about her sexuality and her relationships, in a way that it's not as hindered as it might have been even in the '80s," says Brennan. "Her romantic partner, in her younger years, was a courtesan, which may also be why some historians assumed that Meurent herself was a courtesan."
Surprise No. 5: She Might Be Responsible for Saving the World's Greatest Art
While many women were expected to be docile and subservient in the 19th century, it's likely that Meurent was more of an action-seeker than a stay-at-home artist. "She lived through the Paris Commune, which was a big, bloody revolution," says Brennan. "I'm trying to find more specific information about her involvement, but a lot of artists did things like rescue paintings from the Louvre, and it's quite possible she was among that group doing that." Your action movie fantasies start now.
To pre-order a copy of The Parisian Sphinx, pledge to Brennan's campaign at indiegogo.com.