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Manet’s Olympia from 1863 is one of the most provocative works of 19th century art. And it’s kept in one of my favorite museums in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay

The subject of the work

This provocative painting helped establish Manet as one of the most influential artists on the 19th-century French art scene. The artist has in fact introduced a new way of representing traditional themes. There was nothing unusual about the nudity itself: mildly erotic scenes of ancient nymphs and goddesses were common in French exhibition halls. However, Olympia does not fall into this category.’s Venus of Urbino Titian, but in a far less respectable manner. In the eyes of critics, Olympia was too modern, too ugly, too real, and as such an affront to public morals.

Manet versus the Academy

For much of the 19th (nineteenth) century, standards in French art were tightly controlled. 

Artists who wished to exhibit their works at the official public exhibition in Paris, called the Salon, had to submit their applications to a jury. By the 1860s, resentment toward this procedure and the academy itself was growing. What was not accepted by the artists in particular was the strong control. 

In 1863, permission was granted for a Salon des Refusés (“Salon of the Rejected” literally).’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe , in 1863, becomes the star of the show. Critics ridicule him, but in a few days the work brings the artist unprecedented fame.

Manet’s Olympia at Salon des Refusés the 1865

At about the same time Manet also paints another work: Olympia. However, he decides not to present the picture until 1865. This time too the picture is accepted at the Salon des Refusés but, as with Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the reaction of the critics is hostile. This is largely due to Manet’s subversion of the academic process. Both images were loosely based on famous Renaissance paintings. But Manet was also influenced by the realist tendencies first introduced around 1850 by Gustave Courbet. Courbet argued that art could only represent “real and existing objects”.

Manet, therefore, takes up his Renaissance models and translates them into scenes of modern life. For Olympia, she could not represent a reclining naked goddess, so she transforms her nude into the closest current equivalent.

Manet’s Olympia and Urbino’s Venus

The source of inspiration for Manet’s Olympia is undoubtedly Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Manet had made a sketch of this famous masterpiece during his visit to Florence in 1857. 

It is by no means certain that Titian intended to represent Venus, for the figure is unaccompanied by any of her traditional and mythological attributes. However, the woman’s shy smile indicates a relationship with the viewer. we do not find the same smile in Manet’s Olympia. There is no trace of empathy in the model’s expression. Instead, his gaze is cold and direct, as if he were staring at a stranger.

The details of the work

The model

For this representative work, Manet had his favorite model, Victorine-Louise Meurent, pose to convey his vision of Olympia.

It was not the first time that Manet represented her naked in one of his works. Indeed, Victorine had become famous for being the protagonist of another work by Manet: Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Meurent was not a conventional beauty, but her personality created the effect desired by the artist. Indeed, her self-confident gaze shocked Parisian audiences for years, reinforcing the impression that Manet’s subject was a prostitute. In reality Meurent herself was a painter and many of her works were exhibited at the Salon.

The woman’s body

Today it seems shocking that one of the strongest criticisms has been made against Maneta because of the woman’s body. Art lovers of the time were accustomed to seeing rounded and idealized figures of women in the works. This is not the case for Olympia, her body is in fact judged too realistic at the time. 

Furthermore, some critics of the time despised the color with which the girl’s body is represented. Too yellow, almost orange, it was considered “dirty” for the taste of the time. 

Manet’s Olympia

Shoes One of the silk shoes the girl is wearing has slipped off her foot. So far nothing strange in our eyes. Yet Manet does not represent anything casually in this stupendous work. Wearing a single slipper was a conventional symbol of lost innocence. Manet therefore with this seemingly insignificant detail actually wants to tell a story. Consequently, this detail satisfied the critics of the time who wanted to insinuate how immoral this representation was. 

The hand of Olympia by Manet

The feminine gesture of Venus covering her nudity was widespread in classically inspired academic art. Whether standing or lying in the female nude, this shy gesture is a typical feature of the Venera pudica. But even though the pose was extremely common, its effect in Manet’s Olympia is staggering. In fact, the woman does not have an intimidated look at all, on the contrary she is sure of herself and her actions, not at all modest. 

The Bunch of Flowers

Another common feature of female nude works was the depiction of sexual innuendo in the scene. In portraying the female nude, artists often liked to heighten the erotic mood of their work by including other forms of sensual stimuli. Hence, the depiction of expensive fabrics and exotic flowers has always evoked the senses of touch and smell in art. For Manet’s contemporaries, however, Olympia’s bouquet has another, more unpleasant meaning. In fact, critics have interpreted it as the gift of an admirer or even a potential customer.

The black cat

In ‘s Venus of Urbino , from which this work is inspired with a modern language, the woman was accompanied by a dog. The dog sleeping at the foot of her bed, however, in that case is the traditional symbol of conjugal fidelity between husband and wife. The black cat protagonist of Manet’s Olympia, on the other hand, has always had more sinister undertones. What has made the critics talk the most is the position of the animal, which unlike the sleeping dog, is not at all calm, rather has an arched back. This is to symbolize that he is not afraid of the spectator, but on the contrary is ready to defend his mistress. 

The curtain in the background

Another detail that recalls Venus of Urbino is certainly the curtain in the upper left corner of the work. Both of a strong bottle green colour. 

However, the moral impact of Titian’s Venus of Urbino was mitigated by the fact that the nude was placed in a large, well-furnished room. 

On the contrary, Olympia is compressed into an extremely superficial space. The dark curtains and screen block out any background detail, forcing you to focus squarely on the provocative sexual connotations of the model and her crumpled bed. There is no real background, a second floor, and our attention is concentrated also thanks to the frame created by the curtain on the protagonist of the work. 

Manet’s Olympia. The technique of realization

The Parisian public was mainly outraged by the moral implications of Manet’s work. But many critics were also appalled by the artist’s technique. Visitors to the Salon were used to seeing a high degree of finish in their paintings. Flesh tones, in particular, were meant to exhibit an enamel-like smoothness, even when viewed up close. Manet, however, paid relatively little attention to these features of tonal patterning and gradation. Instead, he tended to flatten his figures and their surrounding space. 

Manet also liked to structure his compositions around powerful contrasts of light and shadow, a mode of representation borrowed from Spanish art. Critics acknowledged his prowess in this regard, but complained about the lack of detail in his somber backgrounds.

Edouard Manet. The story of the artist

One of the key figures in 19th (nineteenth) century art, Manet gained a scandalous reputation due to the realism of his works. And his works brought him closer to the Impressionists, even though he was never an official member of the group.

Manet came from a wealthy family and had received an artistic education from a young age. Notably, he had worked with highly successful academic artist Thomas Couture. Couture had thoroughly studied the old masters and longed for recognition at the Salon, France’s most prestigious exhibition body. 

Despite these experiences linked to the most radical artistic tradition, Manet created controversial and original works. In the early 1860s, the artist gained considerable notoriety when Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia strongly criticized as immoral works. 

But over the years, Manet becomes a point of reference for many younger artists and especially for the impressionist movement. He did not share their enthusiasm for open-air painting. However, his memorable scenes of modern Parisian life proved to be an inspiration to artists of the movement.

Cover: Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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