Olympia: Edouard Manet

Olympia: Édouard Manet

Olympia is an 1863 Symbolist painting by leading French artist Édouard Manet and is generally considered to be possibly Édouard Manet’s most famous painting, only vying for primacy with The Luncheon on the Grass.

It is one of the most recognised paintings in the history of art. Upon its exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1865, it caused a public sensation. It has been a staple of discussions on nudity in art ever since.

Reclining on her back in the manner of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) and the entire tradition that that painting had created, the naked woman looking our way and covering her pubis with her left hand is Victorine Meurent, a model close to the Impressionist group and a favourite of Manet’s. Attending to her and carrying a bouquet is a black maid, Laure, another model. Both women are best known for their roles in this painting.

Meurent’s naked body in Manet’s Olympia is accomplished through broad monochromatic plots of paint not dissimilar to those of The Luncheon on the Grass, whose female nude — who similarly scandalised the Parisian public in 1863 — is also thought to be Meurent. Shading and a distinct black border line serve to mould the shapes of her body.

The vividness of the whites that define her flesh is likely due to a strong studio light coming in from the right. (The starkness of the female nude was a point of critical derision in The Luncheon on the Grass as well.)

Although quick brushstrokes can be recognised in the many creases of the white and cream sheets on which the female nude is resting, the most pointedly Impressionistic passage in the entire composition is the multicoloured bouquet that the black maid is holding. Through mere blasts of stark colour, Manet has made it possible for the viewer to have a clear impression of a bouquet and its colours, most especially from a medium distance. (The criticism hostile to the Impressionist group would indict it for being unfinished.)

Manet’s “Olympia” is lying over a silky sheet which may be the robe she has dropped or, so far, failed to pull on. She appears to be wearing a single slipper, a bracelet that has run up one arm, a black lace around her neck tied on the front, and a decorative artificial flower on one side of her head. Most conspicuous of all, her face is giving us a straightforward look of interest.

It is this remarkable look — this way of directly addressing the viewer — which the gallery-attending public of 1865 Paris found expressly scandalous. The mild ruddiness of “Olympia”’s face, which could be imagined as due to embarrassment rather than maquillage, did nothing to downplay the impression that she is giving the viewer an erotic invitation. If anything, it sharpened it with the suggestion that she is aware that her interest in him is sexual.

There are several elements which concur to explain why most of the Parisian audience received Manet’s Olympia as a provocative composition:

  • Those who recognised Victorine Meurent were likely to know her as a musician, a model for wayward new painters, and someone whose sexual life was the subject of gossip — all less than creditable traits for a woman in the eyes of the Parisian middle class;
  • The title “Olympia”, which implied that that was the woman’s identity, was familiar with Paris slang for prostitute. The black maid is thus easily presumed to be bringing the lady a bouquet sent in homage by an admirer or client;
  • Additionally, the title’s implication that the woman is a mythological being clashed with the model is an easily recognisable contemporary (an apposition which was entirely uncommon).

The black cat on the right, as well as evoking the slang word for female genitalia, was a known artistic symbol of promiscuity (and represented in a state of at least mild excitement);
Her direct stare towards the visual centre of the canvas and therefore the viewer, leisurely and pert, invites erotic interest and draws all attention to her. It is in fact the air conjured by that look which more than anything convinced the average viewer that she was a prostitute.

Defying the cacophony of condemnation and derision (which included Gustave Courbet), the poet Charles Baudelaire and novelist Émile Zola registered as early admirers. Zola judged that the offence to the Parisian public consisted really in showing it something true about its society and itself: the existence of prostitutes and their admirers and clients.

As a minor but significant detail, the trace of armpit hair on Manet’s Olympia also testified very strongly to her being a real woman, and thus not an “Olympia” at all except perhaps in the slang sense. It was Francisco Goya, in his The Nude Maja (Maja desnuda – c. 1800) — another scandalous painting but one not intended for an exhibition — who first painted a female nude clearly modelled on Titian but showing body hair.

For Olympia, Manet had clearly studied the great precedent of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a similarly arranged female nude with perfectly opposite meaning. Titian’s “Olympia” is undoubtedly a faithful wife, her look is one of polite and rightful expectancy, and a dog — the symbol of fidelity — is sleeping on the right extremity of her bed (an ideal opposite to Manet’s worked-up cat).

Interestingly, aware that the partition on the left-hand side of Titian’s painting was originally bottle-green, Manet employs the colour in the canopy in the top-left and for the entire background in the right-hand half of the painting. By then also transporting the scarlet-gold tapestry from the left to the right, behind the head of “Olympia”, Manet effects something of an inversion. The reddish hue of the tapestry thus comes to vivify the ivory complexion of his subject.

Ten years after the creation of Olympia, another admirer of Manet’s effort, Paul Cézanne, gave to the public an additional shock with his Modern Olympia. A dashing Post-Impressionist creation, the painting took the prostitution dynamic, only implied by Manet, several steps further by showing a middle-class gentleman in attendance at a brothel while a black maid uncovers the naked body of a woman situated in some sort of bed.

Édouard Manet’s Olympia has gone on to become a symbol of modernism in art and painting. For some, it is an instance of the moral and technical degeneration of art as it stepped away, in the second half of the 19th century, from the classical canon. For others, it is a symbol of artistic innovation and an important provocation of societal prejudice.

The presence of the black maid — a character having the potential to suggest to its intended audience unconventional passions, once more — has also been studied from the perspective of subaltern studies, for her marginal, oppositional, and/or disruptive role.

Edouard Manet’s Olympia can be found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris Frence, with a number of other famous Manet artworks including Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe), Portrait of Emile Zol, The Balcony (Le Balcon) and Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (Berthe Morisot au Bouquet de Violettes) and The Fifer, or Young Flautist.

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