Pink may seem like a fairly innocuous color, but it became the surprise focus of critics’ response to Édouard Manet’s larger-than-life-sized painting of his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, in a salmon-pink dressing gown. One critic complained that while it might have been Manet’s intention “to engage in a symphonic dialogue, a sort of duet, between the pink of the dress of the young woman and the pink tones of her face… He did not succeed.” Another found the color “delicious” but also commented that her head was “lost in a modulation of pink.”
The arguments over pink, however, were somewhat colored by the piece of clothing that came in that much-discussed hue, the peignoir. Requiring no corset or crinoline, a peignoir was a loose-fitting dressing gown that was worn at home among family and the closet of friends. In spite of its intimate nature, the peignoir could still be quite elaborate and fashionable and was often the outfit of choice in paintings of ladies in domestic settings including Renoir’s Woman at the Piano and even in portraits of fashionable women of means, like the Marquise de Miramon.
Manet’s model, however, is not at home or in a domestic setting, nor is her peignoir terribly au courant, a detail that the ever-fashionable Manet would have intended. Rather Victorine wears her plain gown slightly unbuttoned in the artist’s studio in a setting carefully constructed with various, seemingly incongruous props—violets, a monocle, a parrot. It’s been theorized that these accoutrements can be read as an allegory of the five senses: the half-peeled orange as taste, the man’s monocle around her neck as sight, the nosegay in her right hand as smell, the satin of the peignoir as touch, and the squawking parrot as hearing. Allegory or not, at least two of these props—the monocle and the flowers, perhaps given by the monocle owner—tease at the rather suggestive presence of an unseen man. (The parrot could also be added to this group. Manet was known for making references to other artworks and genres in his work, and the Realist painter Gustave Courbet had just scandalized the 1866 Salon with his painting Woman with a Parrot depicting a nude woman sprawled amid her discarded clothes with a parrot on her finger. The bird was notoriously interpreted as a stand-in for a male lover.)
Add on top of all this the fact that French literature at the time was rife with references to peignoirs in connection to undressing, bathing, and, yes, being sexually available, and you can see why critics were saying that the painting of Victorine—with her confident gaze and coy pose—was “made with a pink that is both false and louche.” Pretty in pink, maybe, but for whom?
—Lauren Schultz, Associate Director of Communications
Image Credit: Édouard Manet. Young Lady in 1866, 1866. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Erwin Davis.