This compelling literary novel brings Edouard Manet’s favorite model to life. Through first-person narration by petite, auburn-haired Victorine, we witness the relationship between artist and model. He sees the fire in her; she calls him a gentleman admiring his restraint. As he creates his unconventional masterpieces Picnic and Olympia, we are privy to his mindset. A would-be artist, bold feminist, analytical, and eager to learn, she parleys with the master. The passages where Victorine reflects on art and life are most poetic. Unnerved, she agrees to pose nude for Olympia in service to art. She believes “Painting is collaboration. your model depicts something you want to capture.” No mere object, she is fully present, “I do not think of modeling as work per se. I’ve been apprenticing. Art is nearly formed in me.”
The novel is rich in subtle comments on patriarchal society’s conventions and a woman’s place. Poor, she must work to survive, keenly aware of the class divide. In art, she can portray a prostitute but not a lady, so she is replaced by upper-class Berthe Morisot, which infuriates her.
A complex, daring, fully developed character with fluid sexuality, Victorine is a survivor. Sex underscores the story with openly erotic scenes. Her sensitivity is shown in her tender care of Pug, the orphan she adopts, and her rendering of Jup, her mother’s pampered pet. Manet, the undisputed leader of modern art, declines to exhibit as Monet, Degas, Renoir, and others eschew the Salon. Our persistent heroine studies at the Académie Julian. Though accepted by the 1876 Salon, it is Manet’s approval she craves. Her self-portrait captures her essence: proud, soft, tough, enduring. Drudge fulfills her goal to return Victorine Meurent to the world as an artist. Aficionados of art history will relish this novel.