*What drew you to Manet’s paintings?
Edouard Manet fascinated me as an artist and as a personality when I began to study the Impressionists at Christie’s graduate program in Art History. He was the first modernist in the sense that he presaged modernism. He opened the door for later artists to walk through like Monet, Picasso, Rothko, and generations of future contemporary painters. It all began with Manet. History scholars consider the last great flowering of ideas, revolutions and wars was born in the late nineteenth century. Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet wrote in the 1860’s of shifting temporality-- the eternal captured in the fleeting moment. These ideas inspired his friend Edouard Manet whose proto-Impressionist painting style expressed Baudelaire’s poetry and prose.
The themes found in Mademoiselle Victorine resonate today. For example, the speed of change in daily life evidenced by the advent of gas and electricity, railroad travel, photography, the dislocation of the familiar found in the urban re-design of Paris by Baron Haussmann, are paralelled today in jet travel, digital imagery, internet and cell phone communications, the frantic pace of daily life, even in the architectual brandism of great cities like London, New York, Shanghai, Barcelona. It is said to this day that on some level, the French have never recovered from the trauma of Haussmannization.
* How much of your novel was based on fact and how much on fiction? Did your protagonist really exist?
The history part is very accurate and informs about 80% of the story. My heroine, Victorne Laurent, is a fictional composite of two fascinating women who lived in Paris in the 1860’s. One was an aristocratic courtesan, the Countess of Castiglione, and the other was Manet’s model and muse, Victoroine Meurent. The real Victorine ended her life pitifully as an alcoholic beggar. The real Countess of Castiglione also spiraled downward into dementia. That was not the vision I had for my lovely and tempestuous Mademoiselle Victorine! I fused the best of the two and created a character as ambitious and mercurial as the Countess of Castiglione, but as vulnerable as the seventeen year old Victorine Meurent. Many people may not be familiar with French history so I have a page on my website devoted to the history and the actual personalities that my characters are based upon. Readers are encouraged to go on mademoisellevictorine.com for historical facts.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 19th century Paris.
Women in the early part of the 19th century had very few opportunities but during the 1860’s, women’s options began to change. That is why change is a thread that runs through the entire novel. It was a time that one’s birth status determined the rest of their lives, as was true of many ages in history. If a girl was born into the upper classes, she would receive a good education in a Catholic school and be married off by her parents in an appropriate, if loveless, match. If she was born poor, like Mademoiselle Victorine, she would not have had the education necessary for the only two professions she could reasonably enter—school teacher or millinery shop assistant. Most likely she would become a prostitute or a laundress. That was it! But in the 1860’s, as I mentioned above, things began to change. Young women from the provinces arrived in Paris via the new railroad system to work and find love, living independently in the big city. Changes in social relations between men and women were a result of a newfound self-awareness, a trend observed by Edouard Manet, Charles Baudelaire and others in the avant-garde of literature and art.
*In your novel, Victorine Laurent scandalizes the Grand Salon by posing for a sexually provocative portrait. Historically, were women who chose to act as models for painters treated differently by society? If so, what kind of girls would to do this?
Girls who chose, or more accurately were forced by circumstances, to model for painters did so for two reasons. Either to earn extra money or to gain fame. Some aspiring actresses tried to be chosen as artist’s models because it would help further their careers. In the novel, Mademoiselle Victorine agrees to pose for Edouard Manet for that specific reason. She aspired to be a courtesan and hoped that posing for him would attract a better quality of “protector” as the gentlemen were euphemistically called. (In 1860’s Paris, the grand courtesans were like our celebrities and movie stars today. They lived flamboyantly, owned palaces with servants and were copied by other women for their style and fashion sense).
The act of posing nude for an artist wasn’t considered scandalous in itself because the nudes were never portrayed as contemporary women. They were clearly recognized as allegorical figures—wood nymphs, Greek goddesses, characters from the past. The scandal arose because the iconoclast Edouard Manet broke tradition and portrayed Victorine Meurent as a woman of the 1860’s, unashamed of her body and staring boldly at the viewer from the painting. He wanted to paint Truth, not a lie. His message said to the viewer, “We both know this isn’t Aphrodite or Diana the Huntress but a young woman from the Paris streets. Let’s not pretend to each other. Let’s be honest in art.” That was the cause of the scandal.
* How did you research MADEMOISELLE VICTORINE, which draws on Manet’s paintings and the vibrant history of salons in Paris?
Research began at Christie’s graduate program in Art History, although I didn’t know the result of my homework assignments would become an historical novel. Studying about the Impressionists felt like reading a really good story. Next, I hit the stacks in the library. I read books about 1860’s Second Empire Paris by historians and social commentators. Some were written by people who had lived at that time and were writing their memoirs. I traveled to Paris many times and researched the streets, the way the light fell on a certain square and especially the terrain of Montmartre where the final scenes in the book take place during the bloody Commune uprising. Going to Paris was no hardship, though. I speak French, have French friends and in my soul, I feel utterly Parisian so it seemed like coming home each time.
Thank you Debra! And feel free to visit Debra Finerman online for more information about her debut novel Mademoiselle Victorine.