I'm delighted to host this special blog tour for Victorine by Drēma Drudge. The author's passion for art and weaving an artistic landscape into her story is magnificent!
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.
Drēma 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.
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A Special Message from Drēma Drudge
I was sitting in a college class watching a slideshow which featured Manet’s Olympia, painted in 1863. I had never seen the painting before. The professor pointed out the things that portrayed Olympia, the name given the woman in the painting, a generic name for a woman of the night during that time, as a prostitute. Her dirty shoes, her overt gazing at the viewer (the “customer,”) the black cat. That red hair. And, of course, her lack of clothing all said what she represented.
He moved on to the next slide, but I couldn’t quit thinking about the painting, which I had never seen before. More specifically, something about the woman told me she had more to say, more than Manet had allowed her to say. Her personality refused to be confined to his brushstrokes.
Fast forward a few months and my husband and I jetted off to Paris to see Olympia. Of course it was a dream vacation, but at its heart was investigating this painting. I thought if I saw her in person I would know what it was I couldn’t figure out. I refused to even Google the model before we went. It felt as if she were calling me to talk to her, not to listen to rumors and innuendo.
And I couldn’t quit thinking about her nose. Something wasn’t right there, but it also wasn’t completely wrong. It just didn’t make sense.
I’m convinced paintings have lives of their own, regardless of how artists attempt to arrange and compose them. What the artist intends added to what the model(s) contribute are combined with what the viewer perceives the painting to mean because we all see them just a bit differently.
I couldn’t sleep the night before my husband and I were due to visit Musée d’Orsay. Would I be as drawn to her when I saw the painting in person?
Standing before Olympia the next day, I had more questions than answers. I cried with frustration because it was like listening to exquisite music with plugged ears. Then a tour guide came by with her group and she said something I never could verify, but that felt so true to who I discovered Victorine to be that I ran with it: she said the reason the nose looked funny in the painting was because a boxer boyfriend of Victorine’s had broken it.
This was what I was looking for. Or I thought it was. I was convinced research would bring to light the young man who had done this heinous deed. Research did not uncover him, but my novel did. Though not even he condones what he did in the novel, I ended up understanding and liking the boxer I named Willie.
A placard upstairs at the museum in front of The Picnic (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe) told me something else, something even more valuable than the possible existence of the boxer boyfriend: Victorine hadn’t been just a model. She had become a respected painter, though few now remembered that about her.
Ah. Now I knew why she had chosen me. I had just written and had published a short story about Olga Meerson, a model for Matisse who was also a painter.
When I did search the Internet after that trip to Paris, it only yielded one of Victorine’s paintings, recovered in 2004: Palm Sunday. The tenderness of her rendering of the young girl riveted me. I knew there had been more paintings of hers at one time, because it turns out Victorine’s work was shown at the prestigious Paris Salon at least four times. But I would be forced to write my novel with only that one painting to reference, along with the works other painters had done of her, which was no small thing. I loved seeing how others imagined her, but I wanted to see how she imagined herself.
Researching my novel was a plodding and slow process, though I also enjoyed it. History recalled barely anything about her; I found only one part biography/part memoir about her, along with tons of rumors with no substantiation. It was all fascinating, but inadequate.
Instead, I turned to studying in particular the paintings Manet did of Victorine. I got to know the lives of those surrounding her, and like the shape of a removed item on a counter full of dust, I was able to see her shadow. I allowed the timing and themes of Manet’s paintings of her to form the plot. Always, though, I checked in with the “her” I thought I knew from the paintings, the woman who had asked me to look past the dirty shoe bottoms, the ever-present choker in nearly every painting Manet did of her, and try to uncover who she really was.
I gave her a distant milliner mother with a dog the woman loved more than her own daughter. I made her close to her father, a frustrated painter who turned to making posters. And one wintry February day, a sweet boy introduced himself to me while I was writing. He said his name was Pug and I welcomed him out of the cold and into the story. He became one of my favorite characters who was always hungry but worked to care for his huge family of brothers and sisters. In him Victorine (who never married) found a son. Or I should say I gave her a son.
One thing we do know about Victorine is that she not only played guitar and violin, but she taught lessons. In fact, at her death, one of the last things put on the fire when the contents of her house were burned, it is reported, was a violin. That image, while it didn’t make its way into the novel, stays with me. I refuse to let her life’s story disappear in the same way.
I had constant “brain fever” while I researched and wrote this novel; I felt excited and shaky all the time. The more I wrote, the more research I attempted. The more I researched, the more I wrote. I was in a dream that lasted the whole time, absolutely immersed in Paris of the 1860’s. I hope readers will share that dream with me as I attempt to return Victorine Meurent to her rightful place in her story.
Meet the Author
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.
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