One of the figures who inaugurated modernism to the history of art is the renowned French painter Édouard Manet. By introducing Impressionism along with other artists as a truly innovative art movement based on the radical rejection of traditional academic routine, this prolific artist managed to establish a bold and multilayered practice. As one of his most celebrated paintings, Olympia shook the society and made a huge impact on the upcoming generations of artists.
This highly controversial composition was painted in 1863 and was exposed to the public for the first time two years later at the Paris Salon. It represents a nude woman in a leisure pose with a servant bringing flowers; Manet's Olympia was embodied by Victorine Meurent (who later became an accomplished painter), while art model Laure posed as her servant. The daring look of a shameless woman caused quite a stir and the public considered this painting indecent since it displayed a sex worker in her boudoir. In relation to that is the fact that the very name Olympia was associated with sex workers in 1860s Paris. Interestingly so, despite all the fuss painting provoked in 1890, the French government acquired Olympia after a public subscription led by Claude Monet.
The piece was painted in a fresh manner characterized by quick brushstrokes, studio lighting, large colored surfaces and shallow depth, and the whole approach was unconventional since Manet abandoned the academic conventions. In addition to that is the size of the canvas, which was much larger than what was usual for this genre-style painting. Olympia’s nudity is well-accentuated and possesses almost a photographic quality, and her body is much more girlish than womanly, a fact that also contributed to the general impression of the painting.
Édouard Manet was quite fascinated by the works of Titian, so this iconic painting was composed on the basis of Venus of Urbino painted by this Venetian master in 1538. The works differ in gestures of the models - Titian's Venus is practically a godly entity and covers her intimate parts in gentle and restless manner, while Manet’s Olympia does it in order to underline her sexual and economic independence from man. The other difference is the presence of the animal, so instead of a dog, Manet painted a black cat, a traditional symbol for women, as well as for sex workers. Olympia’s behavior is bold, as she ignores the flowers (a gift from a client) brought by her maid. Some scholars proposed that the woman is looking in the direction of the door, as her client arrives unannounced. The first art historian to explicitly acknowledge the similarity with the Venus of Urbino was Léonce Bénédite
Another painting with an influence on Manet was Sleeping Venus from 1510 by Giorgione. The one of Francisco Goya, La Maja desnuda from 1800, is also considered as an inspiration. There are many paintings which depicted nudity during the 19th century, yet the majority of them featured a goddess or an odalisque, while Edouard Manet's Olympia depicts a French high-class sex worker waiting for a client.
As it was already mentioned, what the public found so offending about this Manet painting was Olympia’s gaze, not her nudity or her maid. The painting consists of several indicators - her bracelet, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies - all of these are symbols of wealth and sensuality. Manet had already been marked as a controversial artist – just two years prior to exhibiting this scandalous painting, he showed the canvas The Luncheon on the Grass, another composition based on immoral behavior and indecency.
A good example of the public rage over Olympia is a quote by a journalist Antonin Proust who later recalled:
If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration.
One of the most influential figures of the Parisian society, Émile Zola was careful while articulating the domains of the painting, so he stated:
When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.
For a long time, only the main figure of Olympia was in focus of the scholars, while the figure of the maid became the subject of further analyzes of this Manet painting in the early 1990s, based on post-colonial studies. The fact is that this particular painting was extremely modern since it was made only fifteen years after France abolished slavery, so looking from that perspective it is understandable it was so outrageous due to the remaining racial stereotype.
Édouard Manet's Olympia has been used during the 1970s as an important reference in the context of the male gaze proposed by the feminist movement. Especially the Black feminists argued that Manet did not include the figure of the maid for the artistic convention, but to create an ideological binary between black and white, good and bad, clean and dirty. As a matter of fact, the black model represents all the racial stereotypes of the West, especially when juxtaposed by a person with a lighter skin.
In the late 1990s, New York-based artist and critic Lorraine O' Grady wrote an important essay titled Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity, where she expressed that:
Olympia's maid, like all other 'peripheral Negroes', is a robot conveniently made to disappear into the background drapery. While the confrontational gaze of Olympia is often referenced as the pinnacle of defiance toward patriarchy, the oppositional gaze of Olympia's maid is ignored; she is part of the background with little to no attention given to the critical role of her presence.
Following this claim is yet another significant essay Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and Their Homegirls: Developing an Oppositional Gaze toward the Images of Black Women by an author Catherine West who underlined that:
...by claiming an oppositional gaze we can identify, criticize, resist and transform these and other oppressive images of Black women.
This artwork has been often cited by other artists of gender and feminist provenance. There are many examples such as the work Olympia of Victor Burgin from 1982, the photograph of Yasumasa Morimura from 1988 or the lecture performance The Question of Manet’s Olympia: Posed and Skirted by V Girls from 1989, to contemporary practices such as a Luxembourg performance artist, Deborah De Robertis, who laid naked in front of the painting until she was arrested.
Editors’ Tip: Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model and Her Own Desire
Eunice Lipton was a fledging art historian when she first became intrigued by Victorine Meurent, the nineteenth-century model who appeared in Edouard Manet's most famous paintings, only to vanish from history in a haze of degrading hearsay. But had this bold and spirited beauty really descended into prostitution, drunkenness, and early death―or did her life, hidden from history, take a different course altogether? Eunice Lipton's search for the answer combines the suspense of a detective story with the revelatory power of art, peeling off layers of lies to reveal startling truths about Victorine Meurent―and about Lipton herself.
Featured image: Edouard Manet – Olympia, 1863. Image creative commons