By Stephanie Cowell (Regular Contributor)
In 1860 Paris, the lovely models strolled around the famous fountain at Pigalle, hoping an artist would approach to hire them for a few hours or longer. In the winter perhaps they waited in a café, nursing a coffee or an absinthe.
Beauty for Hire
They were not cheap for a poor artist such as the struggling Renoir or Monet; a woman could expect four or five francs for a three-hour session, though that was less than the cost of one of the more expensive new tubes of oil paint. The women were paid more than male models because the height of their beauty had a shorter season, but an artist had to buy coal for his stove to warm her and often endure the presence of her mother as chaperone.
Sometimes the young male artists fell in love with their models. Aline Charigot was a seamstress when she met Renoir, but Claude Monet’s lovely Camille Doncieux was of good family and was largely disowned by them when she took off to live in poverty with Claude without so much as a wedding ring.
Edouard Manet had several models. He painted his wife nude but he soon was painting his exquisite artist colleague Berthe Morisot; conjecture varies to this day whether she did more than model for him. His most famous model was likely from the Pigalle professional models. She was Victorine Meurent who posed as Olympe lying nude on a sofa which so enraged the public when it was first shown that men tried to ram umbrellas through it. Manet loved women and who knows what may have occurred between him and the red-haired Victorine?
Growing Reputations, Fading Loves
The years passed and by 1880 the group of men now known as the impressionists slowly became better known. Claude Monet’s love would die tragically young and Renoir’s Aline grow old, fat, a mother of sons, and greatly loved. And Victorine?
Ah, Victorine! Edouard Manet promised to leave her something when he died and she wrote a wistful note to his widow reminding her and saying that she was in need. As far we know, the request was never answered.
And the wintry days waiting for a job at the Pigalle fountain? In 1885 one of the models opened an agency for his colleagues in the boulevard de Clichy and painters and sculptors came there to make their choice not from the models themselves but their photographs. By then the womens rate was ten francs an hour, more if she were very pretty.
Stephanie Cowell, a former classical singer, is the author of five books, including her most recent, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet. She lives in New York, with her husband, a poet and reiki practitioner, not far from all the impressionist paintings at the Metropolitan Museum.
IMAGES: Monet’s first painting of his love Camille