The blurb says that Eunice Lipton is ‘a distinguished art historian’, but don’t be misled by that or by the alluring reproduction of Manet’s Olympia (head and neck only) on the dust-jacket. Read the health warning beside it: ‘A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire’. This is not art history, but part autobiography, part historical sleuthing and part feminist consciousness-raising.
The feminism comes not with a snarl but a simper. Lipton starts with a meeting at Hunter College between herself and the art historian Linda Nochlin, whose works are also advertised on the dust-jacket. ‘Nochlin was taller than I expected and more girlish. Also less pretty. I assumed that if she was a woman and well-known, she couldn’t be “girlish”; who would take her seriously? ... Nochlin is a mischievous and sexy woman: that’s what the gossip in graduate school omitted.’ Lipton is sexy too and tells what it’s like with her second husband Ken, who is nine years younger than she is and has red hair. Nochlin has red hair; so had Victorine Meurent, who was Manet’s model for Olympia; and so, by the end of the book, has Eunice Lipton. (There used to be an ad for hair lightener: ‘If I’ve only got one life, I want to spend it as a blonde’ – same idea.) Lipton sounds as though she had a crush on Nochlin, and on Meurent too. Back in the Seventies she played ‘Who would you have been in Paris in the 19th century?’ and plumped for Olympia. Nochlin encourages her to research the model’s life, and she sets out to do it. But first she constructs a girlish persona for herself: impulsive, emotional and easily moved to tears (‘My friends know I’m a crier’). It’s not quite as off-putting as it sounds, because the girlishness doesn’t extend to her writing, which is pared down and fast-moving.
Lipton doesn’t hold with art history concentrating on the aesthetic aspects of the subject. She wants to get at ‘the social and political meanings encoded in art’ from a Marxist-feminist angle. She is angry about the way art historians have treated Olympia: Meurent was a painter as well as a model, but nothing is known about her work. Manet painted her nine times, once in male costume as a bull-fighter, and she also posed for the nude in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. After his death she found herself broke and applied to Manet’s widow for money he had promised her. The widow refused. Contemporaries reported that Meurent took to the bottle. Art historians assumed that she must have died destitute shortly afterwards, in the late 1880s. Lipton considers this assumption patronising. The Olympia she sets out to discover will be no spineless Mimi, no loser, but a viable professional, and lesbian to boot.
So off she goes to Paris with Ken where they eat often and very well indeed. The meals are mouth-watering, and the most enjoyable part of the book. Lipton deserves them for working hard at her sleuthing in museums, libraries, archives, private collections and mairies. The mairies are particularly dilatory and obstructive. Lipton is temperamentally unsuited to dealing with the French bureaucracy. In a solitary flash of self-irony she describes herself arriving at an office ‘about as serene as I can get’. Still, her generally het-up condition adds to the drama of the hunt, and so does the presence of Meurent by her side. Olympia takes her hand and speaks to her in paragraphs of heavy type, though fortunately not in 19th-century grisette-speak.
With her help Lipton discovers that she did not die of drink in the 1880s, but at the age of 81 in 1928. True, she went through a bad patch after Manet’s death, but Toulouse-Lautrec and the painter Etienne Leroy gave her the money to lease an usher’s pitch in a theatre. She had studied painting with Leroy, and also with Thomas Couture, and she continued to do illustrations and portraits to commission, as well as historical subjects, two of which were accepted by the Salon. Lipton didn’t manage to find any of her work, but established that she was a member of the Société des Artistes Français – an association of which she approves, because it is anti-modernist. It twice gave Meurent a grant, so she must have been a proper professional. In 1906 she sold her usher’s place and settled in Colombes outside Paris, together with another former usher called Marie Dufour. They stayed together until Meurent died. ‘Were they lovers? I think so. I hope so.’ A happy ending, and it absolves Lipton from the necessity of proving that Meurent was a considerable painter. She makes no attempt to do that.
The point about Lipton’s Olympia is that she had no hang-ups. Lipton herself has – or had – lots, and the other story in her book is a sort of self-analysis. Her parents were poor Jewish immigrants in New York with glorious memories of the Riga opera-house; disillusioned ex-Communists, chronically anxious. ‘Remember McCarthy, Remember the Holocaust.’ She went to City College, a gloomy, sex-free zone, she says, ‘whose leftist political history was our apologia for being there and not at some Ivy League school. But I don’t think we could have gotten into those other schools.’ It was the Fifties, politics were out; literature the only resort. To parents like Lipton’s it was inconceivable that a Jewish girl should ever get her name on the spine of a book.
Everything hung on the writing. Everything. You’d get chest pains if it wasn’t going right, you couldn’t walk, couldn’t sleep, you were constantly in a state of nausea. And all we were working on were little three-page essays on Marvell and Chaucer, or maybe Browning.
Lipton writes really well about the oppressive, depressive atmosphere in which she grew up. She adored her father and hated her mother, who had once been pretty and sexy, but turned into a fat doormat. Male-dominated society had done this to her. Male art historians did the same to Victorine Meurent: they turned her into ‘a sad, failed person – a loser’. Lipton set out to rescue her, rescued herself in the process, and invented a new genre: biography as therapy. It has built-in suspense, works rather well and would work even better were it less girlish. And perhaps ‘invented’ is too strong a word: ‘defined’ would be better. Many biographies have elements of self-therapy, but Lipton has brought the genre out of the closet.