In 1862, the Parisian art world is reeling from the Impressionists, their approach to painting upsetting years of tradition. Prominent among the Impressionists is Edouard Manet, a handsome iconoclast who will stun society with images of his muse, an enigmatic young woman depicted in many poses, most impressively a nude, “Olympia”, that will scandalize all of Paris.
Manet’s model, Victorine Laurent, is first introduced to Degas, later attracted to the talented Edouard, for whom she happily poses but will never commit to a romantic liaison. Trained in the corps de ballet, Victorine came to Paris after being penuriously raised by two sour aunts. Dancers chosen for their beauty rather than ability, the corps is a notorious source of lovely young women for privileged gentlemen, de rigueur at the time in sophisticated Parisian society.
Victorine is a lorette, of superior class to a streetwalker but not as prestigious as a courtesan. Learning early that beauty is her only weapon, Victorine has a limited time to take advantage of her physical gifts. Drawn to the inherent elegance of well-appointed gentlemen, ever on the lookout for a suitable protector, Victorine agrees to pose for Manet until she finds a man who can offer the security she craves.
As the artist’s protégé, Victorine attains cache, and with it unexpected opportunity. While society is shocked by Manet’s paintings of his muse, they are also titillated, eagerly awaiting her introduction to café society. With Baron Rothschild as her patron, Victorine is endowed with a superbly appointed house and whatever luxuries she requires.
Victorine’s decision not to enjoy a liaison with Manet creates a certain tension to his work, the two close friends but never crossing the line between love and friendship. However, when Victorine is approached by the wealthy and influential Philippe De Lyon, her new paramour makes it clear that he will not tolerate any association with Manet.
Close advisor to Emperor Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon I and vice-president of the legislative body, Philippe offers limitless advantages but demands exclusivity, nurturing grand schemes with Victorine as his unwitting pawn.
Basking for a time in “ambition and rivalry, the blood sport of imperial Paris,” Victorine fails to find comfort in financial security or the glamour of her position, the court rife with intrigue. War with Prussia and the revolt of the people against the monarchy after France’s defeat throw Victorine and Manet into proximity once again, the Paris they love in flames. Betrayed by De Lyon and unjustly imprisoned, Victorine learns the harsh lessons of power and greed, surviving only by her wits and Manet’s assistance.
Creating her heroine from a combination of historical characters, Finerman accurately portrays the extravagance and decadence of the court of Louis Napoleon, the rising ire of the working class and a surge of enlightened artists and writers. The real actors all but lost to history, Manet’s gorgeous nude, “Olympia”, survives, a reminder of past glory.