Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Publication date: March 17th 2020
Publisher: Fleur-de-Lis Press
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.
Victorine is currently up for pre-order on Amazon US only.
Manet watches me pose for Stevens. I am, as always in Stevens’s paintings, looking wistfully beyond my beautifully appointed surroundings toward something unattainable or unknown. Longing, that’s what he paints better than anyone. I suppose men respond to it so well because they imagine they can fulfill that longing, or even that it suggests that perhaps women want more than just the trappings (literally) of a good life. Women respond to the “pretty” yet sad paintings because they so often feel the yearning that those women feel.
I would not want a life without longing. It would suggest that there was nothing more to want. There will always be something to want, something to create. There must be. And yet something about the way Stevens paints the longing of these women makes their wishes seem trivial, the product of a too-pampered life. It trivializes their feelings, and that angers me. Perhaps it angers me too that their dreams are not those of us who must literally sing for our supper.
No, I’m being unfair. I saw the misery on the faces of the well-heeled patrons in the department store in which I worked. It gnaws at me, then, the fear that nothing, no nothing, can stop the holes. Except art. I breathe, deeply.
“I’d like to do a painting, Victorine, of you sitting with your guitar,” Manet says quietly, as if he’s the one painting. “That is, whenever you can spare her,” he says to Stevens. Manet cocks his head and narrows his eyes at the white that Stevens is whisking onto the painting. I only know this because I saw the brush Stevens chose: He loads his brushes individually with colors, unlike Manet, who uses a color completely before moving on to the next.
I’m both flattered at being asked to portray myself in such a strong position, holding a guitar, by Manet and extremely annoyed at being treated, again, as a possession. Stevens tells Manet that I will be available the next day, should Manet require me so soon. I smile and hope he will. I don’t even pretend that I am not eager to sit for him. For me, anger is a ball that I toss and never catch again; once an issue is discussed, I’m through. But wariness is a different matter entirely. This Olympia business gives me pause, as it should. Stevens will give up an idea for the sake of painting a beautiful or pathetic scene; Manet will give up beauty for the idea. Guess which I prefer?
In The Guitar Player, my back is to Manet because we have been quarreling about his insistence on asking Stevens’s permission for me, about the simple painting he wishes to create, me in a white dress, no shape, no lines, no color, just clutching my guitar. We don’t argue aloud again about his flight to Spain.
“You love texture and textiles. Why would you choose to paint me this way?” “Haven’t you had enough of color and shine, of dresses fancy enough for an empress?” His hand paints even strokes. A length of blue ribbon wraps around my head but mercifully has not been fastened into a bow, as have the dress ties knotted behind me. In this painting, Manet finds my face’s softness as I make music for myself.
I shelter my guitar, my long-necked child. Absentmindedly my left hand flits to my hair, attempting to cover my ear but Manet’s glare stops me. It turns out that this is my favorite painting he does of me, because he simply reports: He allows me to create myself. Or he comes as close to it as one can. This is how he apologizes to me. That and his and his friends’ new pastime: boxing.
The bamboo chair in the painting echoes the exoticism of the wild parrot, the spirit of music that plumes from my guitar. Passion parts my lips; the parrot flies. The guitar strap curves sharply on my lap. Instead of looping the protective strap over my head, I trust my arms, my hands. They will hold it, no matter what. The music is the parrot, not the instrument. My guitar is my fifth limb.
“You need a necklace,” he says, and he motions for me to turn, ties something about my throat. When I put my hands up, I immediately recognize the shoelace I had thought lost. I cannot think how he got it.
“This is yours,” he says. It’s the very same one. I confirm this by feeling the knots. I pat the string affectionately and my eyes fill.
“Turn your head,” he requests. I pretend he is not using my tears to add a glaze to my painted eyes. “Blackground” surrounds me. Naturally. As he paints me, I play a tune I have created. He nods rhythmically at my song, and later I fancy I see my notes in the stutter of his brushstrokes. There are so many, many things Manet does not know he knows, God love him. That, I suppose, is what I am doing here. But what does it mean that he never tries to exhibit this painting?
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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