Detail of the 1863 painting Olympia by Victorine Meurent and Edouard Manet


PARIS, 1863 — Lady Gaga, Madonna, yes, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift too, they all owe Vicky Meurent money. Or at least they will. Since current copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years, the copyright that Victorine Louise Meurent (18 February 1844 – 17 March 1927) holds on attitude officially expired on 17 March 1997. However when The Walt Disney Company next instructs the United States congress and thereby the Berne Convention and thereby The World to retroactively extend copyright to the life of the author plus 100 or 140 years, then Meurent’s copyright on attitude will be renewed and extended to 2027 or 2067 and Gaga and countless others will finally have to make good on their debt to The Estate of Victorine Louise Meurent.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that when something really becomes significant it becomes invisible. Not because it’s unimportant, but because it becomes ubiquitous. Today the Internet is slowly moving toward invisibility, but it’s still fairly new and we see, think, and talk about it a lot. But what about electricity? Everything in our world runs on some form of electricity. There’s nothing more important. Or ubiquitous. Or invisible.

When Victorine Meurent stared at painter Edouard Manet, and by extension all of human culture, she possessed a sense of will and confidence, a sense of self-determination, an owning of her own gaze and of her own body, that almost no woman depicted in paint had ever done before. Victorine Meurent owned her own gaze. Victorine Meurent invented attitude.

Today, a million music videos filled with pop stars staring down camera lenses later, it’s hard to believe that anyone doesn’t have attitude. It’s almost impossible to believe that there ever could have been a time on this earth when people, particularly women, did not have attitude, did not own their own gaze. But there was. Victorine Meurent invented attitude.

Birth of Venus by William Bouguereau, 1879
Here’s the “standard” woman courtesy of academic painting master Bill Bouguereau. In his Birth of Venus (1879) we see her gaze averted, which makes her the ripe object for our consumption. The way her neck is bared is almost vampiric, but no biting is required because we can take the pleasure of consuming this female flesh with our “male gaze.”
Olympia by Victorine Meurent and Edouard Manet
By contrast here’s Vicky Meurent performing Olympia (1863) for the talented paintbrush of Ed Manet. To a 21st century eye Olympia may not seem that different from Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, but notice that Venus’ gaze is averted, she’s fruit, an object for consumption. By contrast Meurent gazes straight back at the viewer. If we dare to consume her with our gaze she is fully aware of it and gazes straight back at us with an equal and unrelenting power.
Yes the subject of the painting is a courtesan and she is, after all, naked in bed. But look at that hand so significantly clamped on her crotch. This is a depiction of female sexuality, embodiment, and empowerment entirely different from Venus. This is woman who owns her own body. This is a woman who owns her own gaze. This is an entirely different sort of self-awareness. This is a woman who refuses to be less than equal.

Unlike so many of his other paintings, the Manet paintings featuring Meurent all show a presence, a conscious embodiment rather unique in the figure painting of the time. Meurent dares to envision an empowered future, even if it will take another hundred years to realize. The confidence, the gaze, the self-awareness that so many possess and take as a given today was invented by this woman in this painting. Victorine Meurent invented attitude.

As a painter her works have not been preserved with the care Manet’s have, yet there was at least one year when Manet’s work was not accepted into the Paris salon, and Meurent’s work was.

I’m writing this post, like so many things in life, as a tangent to a tangent to a tangent, yet it is as real and meaningful and important as anything I can think of. A couple of days ago I happened to see a tweet from that megalomaniac of popular performance art Brian Feldman:

Who wants to be the one person I follow today.

I replied that I craved the attention, in principle, but feared my anemic tweeting so vastly unworthy. Kind of like that “FAME” project that Twitter killed after 19 days. I thought it was cool, but begged not to be the “lucky” winner as I didn’t want the pressure.

Anyway Feldman did follow me for a day which occasioned my blog post Brian Feldman Follows Me in which I talked a little about his 1Following project and even more about his 2 years earlier project Brian Feldman Marries Anyone. I argued a bit on behalf of “the bride” Hannah Miller and she replied in the comments, that she wasn’t an objectified damsel waiting to be rescued by a feminist not on a horse. Along the way I rhetorically asked if Miller was Meurent to Feldman’s Manet which she, hyperbolically, took as my statement that she was a drunken, talentless prostitute. And then a whole Meurent thing evolved in the comments and it seemed like, at long last, I should write a little about her.

I have talked and thought about Meurent so many times, it is inconceivable that I’ve never really written about her. At last I have. Thank you Hannah Miller. Thank you Brian Feldman. There is far more to say than I have in this brief post. Far more information to offer, far more analysis to perform, far more opinion and discussion to present. To Hannah, Brian, and YOU, please click on the comment box below: share what you know; share what you think.

Thank you!

Gaga and everyone else: you’re on notice, Vic will be collecting soon!

R E L A T E D . M A T E R I A L S

Victorine Meurent / Wikipedia
Alias Olympia / Eunice Lipton / Google Books

Brian Feldman Follows Me / iRez
Brian Feldman Marries Anyone / iRez
FAME / Twitter

Brian Feldman’s 1 Following project page on Facebook

Hannah Miller / Facebook
Hannah Miller / Twitter


As a virtual public artist my work invites avatar communities to express their identity, explore their culture, and demand their civil rights.

6 thoughts on “Vicky

  1. I’m lost here, Vaneeesa. I don’t understand what you mean about the copyright on “attitude.” I’ve looked at Victorine Meurent’s Wiki and nada. Is the patent for real or are you talking figuratively? Inquiring minds want to know. hehe

    1. It’s true Yordie, I’m speaking figuratively. But as I tried to say

      To a 21st century eye Olympia may not seem that different from Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, but notice that Venus’ gaze is averted, she’s fruit, an object for consumption. By contrast Meurent gazes straight back at the viewer.

      It’s true that both paintings are sort of cheesecake… or soft-core porn for the affluent if you like… but I think Meurent, “the model” in the Olympia painting does something unique. For me it’s really in a small way the start of the confidence and “attitude” that we take for granted or is “invisible” today.

      Obviously there weren’t Music Videos back then, but if we can imagine there were, I don’t think you’d see anything like the self-confident “attitude” that Taylor Swift shows in the video at the top of this page.

      When Olympia was painted, when Taylor Swift’s video was filmed, there was no audience. But there was the implied or understood future audience. While Swift’s song was critiqued as overly simplistic, you can’t watch the video and deny that she believes in herself. The confidence with which Swift faces her unknown, future audience, for me traces its roots back to that fairly unprecedented confidence Meruent found in Paris 145 years earlier.

      What changed between 1863 and 2008? Obviously a better question would be what didn’t change!? Still, for this trajectory of individual self-awareness and particularly the “attitude” we see when singers stare back at their audience, I look to Vicky Meurent.

      1. hahahha… caught in the snare. it’s just that you sounded so authoritative, i was really baffled at what you meant. I’m prolly the most literal person you’ll prolly ever meet.

        I like your point of view, plus i did take the time to read the Wiki on her. She’s a unique woman and apparently it was understood in her time.

        1. I’m always amazed to look at the confidence and self-assurance she has in that image, and then remember that she was just 19 when that was made. Ha! That so wouldn’t have been me at 19! 😛

          (Swift is about 18-1/2 in that video)

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