Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences


Modern Languages and Literatures

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Elizabeth Emery

Committee Member

Pascale Lafountain

Committee Member

Rabia Redouane


This thesis seeks to expose the difficulties women painters faced in the second half of the nineteenth century in France when they were expected to be wives and mothers above all else. Girls, considered “angels of hearth” (McMillan) received different and less education than boys. They were barely taught anything other than catechism, which reinforced their role as future spouses and mothers. As a result, women were largely absent from the professional ranks of doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

Women artists faced many difficulties. Bourgeois society admitted female painting as leisure activity (“art d’agrément”), but not as a profession. If a woman persisted in seeking an artistic career she was perceived as immodest and unfit. In addition, she encountered technical difficulties: art classes for women cost twice as much as for men; painting nudes, considered a critical skill, was forbidden for women. Furthermore, exhibiting one’s work solicited double criticism: as women who dared to exhibit and as painters.

The focus of this thesis lies on working class Frenchwoman Victorine Meurent, who modeled for Manet’s famous Olympia and Déjeuner sur l ’herbe. At age thirty-one she decided to become a painter. She took art classes, and exhibited successfully at the Salon. Nonetheless, she was soon forgotten. Critics of her time described her as poor woman who descended into alcoholism, yet the truth is that Meurent kept painting and teaching guitar until the age of eighty-four. Unlike other successful women painters of her time, such as Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and Rosa Bonheur, whose families supported them, Meurent had no moral or financial support. Former model, single, independent woman, Victorine Meurent is one of the many forgotten women artists neglected by history. This thesis uses her experiences to assess the complex social challenges facing talented women artists in the late nineteenth-century France.

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