On a Paris day in 1862, two teenaged girls stand before a window, drawing—and attract the attention of a man who transforms their work with a few marks on the page. This encounter with the painter Edouard Manet will change their lives and produce one of his most famous paintings: Olympia, a portrait that shocked the art world with its depiction of Victorine Meurent, the protagonist of Paris Red.
Gibbon’s book paints a colorful portrait of Paris’s Belle Époque, rich in description and sensual detail, and introduces us to some of the great artists of the day including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Her writing is lovely, as full of color and vibrancy as the era’s greatest works, and the sex scenes between Victorine and Edouard positively sizzle.
Unlike the artist, however, Gibbon doesn’t quite do justice to Meurent. Rather than present us with a blossoming young art student and musician coming into her power as Paris’s most popular model, Gibbon gives us a simple tale of a poor, somewhat naïve foundry worker driven by sex and art—in that order. In fact, Victorine seems to think of little else but sex. The book’s only dramatic tension arises when Manet goes away on family business, leaving Victorine to fret over how she will pay her rent.
Paris Red’s characterizations lack complexity or depth, and its most compelling story, of Victorine’s ambivalent attraction to a close woman friend, never fully develops. Still, the book offers an entertaining and erotic read about a fascinating woman unfamiliar to most. At its best, it should stimulate the reader’s interest in learning more about Victorine Meurent, whose work was more popular than Manet’s during their lifetime and whose life, ultimately, proved far more interesting.