BOOK REVIEW / From the drawing class to the boudoir: 'Alias Olympia' - Eunice Lipton: Thames & Hudson, 12.95 pounds

WHEN Manet's Olympia was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1865, the critics reacted with howls of rage. Such was the volume of imprecations against 'the vicious strangeness of this woman of the night, a sort of female gorilla, a grotesque' that the authorities cordoned off the painting against possible assault from canes and umbrellas while the artist himself, frankly puzzled by the brouhaha, left hurriedly on a trip to Spain.

The excuse that he was merely following in the grand traditions of Goya and Titian was surely a little disingenuous. What still arrests, if it no longer shocks the gazer at Olympia's sumptuous marmoreal sprawl, is its blatant impertinence. The apparently chaste attempt at sexual concealment effected by a strategically positioned hand is an oblique invitation. Nothing more cheekily proclaims this woman's modern immediacy, the female nude trundled abruptly from the life-drawing class into the boudoir, than those gold slippers with their little blue edgings. They tell us, as the gracefully arranged bedclothes of the Maja Desnuda and the Venus of Urbino politely do not, that she is on offer, a commercial proposition.

Upon somebody Manet had conferred immortality, but who was she? 'He needed a woman,' Zola, another of his sitters, baldly remarked, 'and Olympia was the first who came to mind'. Things were a little more complicated than this. The point about artists' models is that they should ideally possess no life beyond what the painter or sculptor chooses to express, but such anonymity was hardly the case with Olympia.

Victorine Meurent, who had modelled for the equally scandalous Dejeuner sur l'herbe, turns out to have been a painter in her own right, exhibiting a costume piece entitled Bourgeoise de Nuremberg in the 1879 Salon alongside two works by Manet himself.

Her career never took off, and she spent most of the next 30 years living with a series of lesbian lovers, peddling her sketches in cafes and dance halls with the aid of what were quaintly known as les bristols, engraved cards on which she proudly declared: 'I am Olympia, the subject of Manet's celebrated painting'. Kept going by donations (from Toulouse-Lautrec among others), she died in drink-sodden obscurity in 1928, in the Parisian suburb of Colombes.

The quest for this artistic footnote up and down the byzantine alleyways of French bureaucracy, cloaked in its barely penetrable miasma of hostility and suspicion, merely furnishes a background to Eunice Lipton's odd little balloon of a book. It floats between art history, autobiography and an emphatically American strain of confessional feminism, but never quite lands firmly on any of them. Her subtitle, A Woman's Search For Manet's Notorious Model & Her Own Desire, is symptomatic of the author's ambiguous aims. Victorine was in no sense notorious, just rather unlucky and not especially talented, one of those dim survivors who hang around on the fringes of Bohemia, always managing to outlive the genius whose touch gave them a moment's radiance, and nowadays the subject of magazine features and television documentaries.

As for Lipton's 'own desire', what exactly is this? Passages in bold type, forming Victorine's imagined memoirs, alternate with an often embarrassingly candid apologia from the sleuth herself, as if exhuming Olympia were only to be justified as part of an extensive psychotherapy session. Chummy, sozzled old Victorine is easily transformed into the caring analyst, providing Eunice with the perfect excuse to tell all about her card- playing father from Riga, her interfering mother, Trudy, who was born in a shtetl near Lublin, and her husband, an artist called Ken, who has red pubic hair and calls her 'Eun'.

The cliche that accuses female biographers of identifying too ardently with their subjects is in some sense validated by this book.

Slowly Manet's imperious parody disappears from her bed, to be replaced by the figure of a slightly forlorn middle- aged art historian strenuously re-evaluating her life while the reader, between toe-curls and goose-bumps, looks reluctantly on.