Perspective | She was always the object. And then she painted herself.

This self-portrait showed up at a flea market in Vanves, a suburb of Paris, in 2010. It was snapped up by a dealer, Édouard Ambroselli, then purchased from Ambroselli by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, late in 2021. It hangs now in that museum’s storied Impressionist gallery, in the company of paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin, Monet and Degas, alongside two paintings of the same woman by Manet.

What makes it so special?

To begin with, it’s one of fewer than half a dozen paintings attributed with any certainty to this artist, Victorine Meurent, and it’s the only one in a museum outside France. That’s disappointing, because Meurent, who lived into her 80s, exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon about half a dozen times, earned her living as an artist for many years and was inducted into the Société des Artistes Français (the French Society of Artists) in 1903.

Despite considerable obstacles, it was not as uncommon for female artists to achieve such things as people often assume. But it was especially impressive in Meurent’s case because she was not born into wealth. Her father, a patinator, specialized in giving color and texture to bronzes, and her mother was a milliner.

Meurent began working as a life model for artists in 1860, when she was 16. She was employed in the studio of Thomas Couture, who taught Manet for six years. By the time Meurent arrived, Manet had left Couture’s studio. But he met her anyway, probably through the painter Alfred Stevens, and very soon asked her to model for him.

Today, Meurent is known to students all over the world not as a painter but as the woman who posed for the most famous nude of the 19th century: Manet’s “Olympia.” That painting presented Meurent both as a fictional character out of a poem by Charles Baudelaire and a contemporary prostitute. To complicate matters further, it was also an homage to Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” It’s usually regarded as the painting that kicked off what we call “modern art.”

Over more than a decade, Meurent posed for other celebrated paintings by Manet, too, including “Luncheon on the Grass,” “The Street Singer,” “Mademoiselle V. in the Costume of an Espada,” and “The Railway.” She also modeled for Stevens, Couture, Edgar Degas, Norbert Goeneutte and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. To support herself, she also gave lessons in piano and guitar and performed at cafe-concerts.

Spending so much time with artists stimulated her to try painting herself, so in 1875 she enrolled at the Académie Julian, taking classes with the painter Étienne Leroy. She painted this self-portrait only a year after those lessons began. I love the skeptical intensity of her sidelong gaze; the starkly illuminated nose against the shadow of the far side of her face; the frankness of her downturned mouth and pinched, tired-looking eyes; and the delicacy of her reddish-blond eyelashes.

The brushwork, let’s be honest, is not as dynamic, nor the lighting transitions as dramatically abrupt, as Manet’s rendering of the same face. But for someone who started painting only the previous year, it’s outstanding. In fact, it was good enough to be accepted by the 1876 Salon jury, which, hilariously, rejected Manet’s two submissions that year.

Meurent showed again — this time with Manet — at the 1879 Salon. He died in 1883, but she continued to paint and exhibit into the 20th century.

The sad thing is, we don’t know much more. Art historians, memoirists and novelists have swarmed into the informational vacuum around Meurent, because everything about her is fascinating. Their efforts have been compelling but necessarily rife with speculation.

What’s wonderful about this self-portrait is that it’s real. It’s verifiable. Bearing the mark of Meurent’s own hand, it transforms a misty erasure into a smack-warm fact.

It has a different kind of force field to Manet’s paintings of Meurent. You could say it turns object into subject, and I suppose that’s true. But self-portraits are always more interesting than that: They’re an attempt to transform an artist’s own confused subjectivity (what’s more elusive than self-knowledge?) into something objective. They are a demonstration of agency, a way to say: This is how I’m trying to see myself, and maybe how you might see me too.

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