Considering Victorine
By John Behm

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Year
1993
Media
Oil Painting
Subject Matter
People
Reg. Number
L341
Size
95.5 x 110 cm

Painted in the artist's studio and depicting Scottish writer Susie Maguire, this oil on canvas by John Behm mixes wet-on-wet or 'alla prima' brushwork - a fast style of painting where layers of wet paint are applied on top of one another - with the glaze technique. The painting was completed in 1993 and possesses some curious features - for example, the shadow cast by Susie as she sits with book in hand. Not only does it not seem to fit with her figure, but on closer inspection it seems to belong to someone else entirely. This is a deliberate incongruity on the part of the artist, and is a detail that may actually shed some light on the deeper aspects of the piece when considered in conjunction with the work's title, 'Considering Victorine'.

The Victorine mentioned in the title is not immediately present in the work, which only depicts the solitary figure of Susie Maguire. The connection must thus lie deeper in the piece, with Victorine existing as purely the object of consideration between the artist and his muse. During the period in which this work was completed, Behm was studying the work of Edouard Manet – in particular his oil paintings of the model, musician and artist, Victorine Meurent. The character and personality of Meurent fascinated Behm, and he researched her complicated life story for several years, producing a series of paintings and eventually coming to consider her as the "absolute archetype for the way in which [non-conformist] individuals within our society…can be misunderstood and misrepresented." Her strong personality and refusal to compromise on her artistic desires, not to mention her determination to succeed entirely on her own merits and without the help or protection of any man, combined to create an irresistibly charming, endlessly intriguing muse for Behm. Indeed, in a particularly revealing and honest statement, the artist confesses: "Tall and red-headed as she was, I'd probably have fallen in love with her, too, had I known her."

At the time of painting, short story writer Susie Maguire was Behm's living muse. She shared the artist's fascination for Victorine's story, and her ill-fitting shadow could thus be interpreted as a ghostly representation of Victorine's presence in the painting as the artist and Maguire reflect on her life and struggle. The painting might ostensibly be a simple portrait representing a given moment in time, but delving deeper into its oily layers yields some surprising curiosities.

John Behm has a degree in fine art and a separate degree in applied art, both from Edinburgh College of Art. He currently lives and works in Norfolk, where he continues to produce challenging art that both explores and expresses our inner, common humanity.