The String’s the Thing – Manet and fashion by Drema Drudge #art #historicalfiction

DremaI’m delighted to welcome Drema Drudge to my blog today to talk about Manet’s models and their clothing, which feature in her new novel ‘Victorine.’

The String’s the Thing

In Victorine, my historical novel coming out in the next few months, I write about the black choker Edouard Manet paints Victorine wearing. I imagine it as his bootlace, called into service on the spot, although some versions of the neckwear in his paintings of her appear to be thicker, perhaps the width of a velvet ribbon. A painter can easily widen a necklace with his brush, of course. If you notice the ten or so paintings he did of her, in nearly every one, whether the object is thick or thin, she’s wearing something black around her neck.

Victorine has mixed feelings about the string in my novel. On the one hand, she grows accustomed to it, and associates it with his paintings of her. But on the other, she despises being told what to wear. However, when the two come back together for a painting after a gap in time, as Manet puts the shoelace about her neck, she fills with emotion at the time they used to spend together, and how things are different now, even though he is painting her again.

“You need a necklace,” he says, and he motions for me to turn, ties something about my throat. When I put my hands up, I immediately recognize the shoelace I had thought lost. I cannot think how he got it. “This is yours,” he says. It’s the very same one. I confirm this by feeling the knots. I pat the string affectionately and my eyes fill. “Turn your head,” he requests. I pretend he is not using my tears to add a glaze to my painted eyes.

Victorine 61cBqCpuQVLLater in my novel, I give Victorine adoring fans who purchase and sport chokers with her as Olympia in lockets, based on what I discovered during my research – apparently these items did become all the rage after the controversial painting was displayed in the Paris Salon, the prestigious yearly art show. It hardly offsets the cruelty she experiences in the streets after the “scandalous” nude painting was exhibited. Though Manet was castigated for his painting, the woman presumed to actually be a prostitute (she was not) was doubtless treated much worse.

I walk briskly along the cobblestones, finally on my way to dine with Willie, stopping at an outdoor faucet to rinse my hands, raising my hem as if I were a lady, though it doesn’t need raising. I smirk and wave triumphantly at the young women who lift their black shoelace necklaces for me to examine. I stick out a foot and show off Manet’s boots laced with thick black laces. It’s too bad that fame (well, perhaps it’s more notoriety, in my case) does not necessarily bring money.

But Victorine is not the only one of Manet’s models to wear chokers. Berthe Morisot, the artist who eventually married Manet’s brother, is given a similar necklace in at least one of his paintings of her. (Morisot and the already married Edouard Manet are rumored to have been in love with one another, but somehow she ended marrying Manet’s brother, Eugène.) Other women in Manet’s paintings also received black bands of fabric about their necks.

portrait-of-victorine-meurend-edouard-manetThis paragraph shows how Victorine is viewed, as both heroine to some and something much worse to others:

A girl of about twelve stands before me and smiles, fingering her shoelace necklace from which dangles a heart-shaped charm. “You’re Olympia,” she says. “No, I’m not.” I smile back at her and I wonder who is making all of this marvelous profit from the shoelace necklaces that abound now. Her mother quickly attempts to rush her away. “But you are. I remember your hair color.” The girl rocks forward and backwards and holds her hands to her mouth. “I posed for Olympia, but I am not Olympia,” I say. “Please, we really must go,” the mother, whose expensive clothing and neat shoes declare her respectable, says. While it was quite all right for the girl to see the painting of me and to wear a necklace like I wear in the painting, to fraternize with me is obviously forbidden.

While I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand someone psychoanalyzing the painter and his predilection for encircling his model’s necks with black, making something almost sinister of it, I prefer to chalk it up to his considerable respect and regard for fashion. Few paint fabric and fashion of the day the way he did, so clearly he paid attention to what women wore. In some of his paintings he had his models wear out-of-date clothing, but it was, no doubt, to make a statement. Though it’s his last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet still has the bar keep wearing a ribbon with a charm dangling from it. One wonders if he thought of Victorine when he put it around the woman’s neck.

Near the end of the novel, Victorine is permitted to display her self-portrait at the Salon, a feat she has longed for. Now she gets to examine how she sees herself, rather than how other artists have painted her, and she certainly does not wear what has begun, it seems, to feel like a noose of sorts:

The lift of this maturing woman’s neck is proud, and she looks, as always, frankly at the viewer, a stance that is not so unusual now, but certainly echoes Manet’s painting. Lines of loss show in her face. Most decidedly she does not wear a black shoelace at her neck.

No shoelace, no noose now, but also no real relationship with Manet, whose health is failing. She is freed from the black ribbon, but she has also lost something in the bargain. It doesn’t, however, outweigh who she has gained: herself.

About the Book:

In 1863 Civil War is raging in the United States Victorine Meurent is posing nude, in Paris, for paintings that will be heralded as the beginning of modern art: Manet’s Olympia and Picnic on the Grass. However, Victorine’s persistent desire is not to be a model but to be a painter herself. In order to live authentically, she finds the strength to flout the expectations of her parents, bourgeois society, and the dominant male artists (whom she knows personally) while never losing her capacity for affection, kindness, and loyalty. Possessing both the incisive mind of a critic and the intuitive and unconventional impulses of an artist, Victorine and her survival instincts are tested in 1870, when the Prussian army lays siege to Paris and rat becomes a culinary delicacy. Drema Drudge’s powerful first novel Victorine not only gives this determined and gifted artist back to us but also recreates an era of important transition into the modern world.


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Huge thanks to Drema for this fascinating post. I remember chokers being fashionable when I was a teenager, and found Victorine’s ambivalent attitude towards being made to wear them very interesting.