The Coffee Pot Book Club Book Award.
By Drēma Drudge
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.
"Is there no way to stop the decay, the inevitable death of all but art? Good, solid, great art. I want to create it because I want to live forever."
She was born into a family of artisans and had a secret ambition to become an artist. He was rich, but had rejected the future initially envisaged for him and instead immersed himself in the world of art. But on one auspicious day, Victorine Meurent and Édouard Manet crossed paths. What was to follow would seemingly mock the tradition of the Royal Academy and shock and scandalise the Parisian public.
But what Victorine had not expected was that she would be forever cast in the role of a courtesan or a demi-mondaine, while Manet would later be referred to as the Father of Impressionism.
From a young girl's dreams and ambitions to the heart-breaking funeral of a friend who was taken far too soon, Victorine by Drēma Drudge is the riveting, at times shocking, story of Victorine Meurent — artist, model, musician, lover, and friend.
With a daring but bold stroke of the brush, Drudge has penned an evocative and utterly enthralling story about an artist that history has, for some reason, overlooked. Lovers of Manet's work will instantly recognise Victorine Meurent's face however, as she mockingly stares at them from The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. Still, her art which was hung in the Académie des Beaux-Arts and The Salon is all but forgotten. Drudge sheds new light onto the artist that took of her clothes and scandalised a nation.
Written with a keen sense of time and place, Drudge has given her readers a book which is as rich in historical detail as it is in historical controversy. We meet the child Victorine, who is abused by her father — an abuse that is ignored by her mother. We watch as she grows up and begins to explore her sexuality. She is assertive, at times immoral, but always determined to do her own things in her own way. Victorine's ambition to become an artist is thwarted only by her situation and her sex. And while the notion of being a penniless artist is considered, for some reason, romantic, the realities left little time for romance. Coming from an artisan family, Victorine did not have the luxury of falling back on her family’s wealth to support her — for most of this story, it is Victorine who is supporting her ageing parents. Drudge clearly demonstrates the lack of opportunity for women, such as Victorine. This was an era where an independent woman was in itself a scandalous notion. However, that does not explain why Victorine Meurent's art has not stood the test of time the way Berthe Morisot's has. Perhaps the reason is simply that Victorine's life was too vulgar for the era that she lived in. She may have moved in the same circles as the Impressionists, but her behaviour sets her somewhat apart from them as well.
Drudge portrays Victorine as a woman who is comfortable in her sexuality, so at times this book is verging on explicit. Victorine is promiscuous and has many lovers, and she is also not opposed to violence in her relationships, which, for some, may make for difficult reading. Drudge also gives us a woman who is prepared, from quite a young age, to take off her clothes to model in the nude, not necessarily because of her need for money but because she seemingly enjoys it, or more likely because when she was naked it was the only time her father seemed to notice her. Drudge has, however, given her readers a stubborn woman, whose single-minded determination drives this story forward.
In this story, Manet's wealth and position in society doesn't intimidate Victorine in the slightest. She treats him like an equal, and they spend many hours talking about art, and she learns a great deal from him, but she also learns how to play the game — how to produce art that The Salon will accept, and in fact, history tells us that in 1876 Victorine's self-portrait was displayed in The Salon whereas Manet's work was not accepted. Victorine did not have the luxury of being a man in a man's world, but her shameful behaviour also did her no favours, and this Drudge depicts beautifully. I thought Drudge's depiction of Victorine was fabulous.
The historical detailing of this book has to be commended. Drudge has obviously spent many long hours researching not only the life of Victorine Meurent and Édouard Manet but also the era in which this book is set in. The Siege of Paris (1870-1871) was particularly well-drawn and incredibly realistic as was Victorine's relationship with the Belgian painter, Alfred Stevens. This attention to detail, this attentiveness to the documented history of this time gave this book a tremendous sense of authenticity.
Victorine by Drema Drudge is a fascinating insight into the life of Victorine Meurent. It is an absolute treat for anyone who loves to read quality Historical Fiction.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Drēma Drudge suffers from Stendhal’s Syndrome, the condition in which one becomes overwhelmed in the presence of great art. She attended Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program where she learned to transform that intensity into fiction.
Drēma has been writing in one capacity or another since she was nine, starting with terrible poems and graduating to melodramatic stories in junior high that her classmates passed around literature class.
She and her husband, musician and writer Barry Drudge, live in Indiana where they record their biweekly podcast, Writing All the Things, when not traveling. Her first novel, Victorine, was literally written in five countries while she and her husband wandered the globe. The pair has two grown children.
In addition to writing fiction, Drēma has served as a writing coach, freelance writer, and educator. She’s represented by literary agent Lisa Gallagher of Defiore and Company.