Manet’s Olympia & The Shock to Society

If you like someone who challenges tradition and a good scandal, I’d direct you to Édouard Manet who contributed to the modernist art movement despite backlash. Let’s start by looking at one of his more controversial works. 

A Shocking Reveal

“They are raining insults upon me!”

Édouard Manet 

So said the French artist, Édouard Manet to his friend Charles Baudelaire following a huge negative reaction to the 1865 reveal of his painting Olympia in Paris. What makes this painting so scandalous?  

For one, Manet’s Olympia depicts a nude female prostitute. A black cat stands near her feet as she reclines on a chaise lounge. Standing behind her is a black female servant who presents a flower bouquet that is probably a gift from a client. By blatantly displaying these elements and their known meanings, Manet utterly bewildered viewers. In fact, he practically insulted artistic academic conventions!  

nude woman reclining on bedding with black maid presenting flowers to her
Édouard Manet’s Olympia

Challenging Conventions

Paintings in the 19th century were supposed to look towards a classical past to reinvent ideas. Artists usually painted with a smooth blending technique while creating rich atmospheres and depicting conventional figures of a mythological, historical, or allegorical nature. For instance, artists would look towards works like Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Titian’s painting showed a nude woman but did so through classical references to Venus, the goddess of love, which elevated the nudity to a feminine ideal of beauty and, therefore, was accepted by audiences.

naked women lounging on beddingnude woman reclining on bedding with black maid presenting flowers to her
Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Left) compared to Manet’s Olympia (Right); Move the bar to switch between images.

Despite also taking inspiration from Titian (note the similar poses), Manet’s work was far from a respectful homage to Titian. In fact, Manet rejected artistic traditions and stripped its meaning! 

For instance, whereas Titian’s Venus is rich and delicately contoured, Manet’s Olympia is flatly painted and washed out. Olympia appears ‘rougher’ in order to reflect the contemporary world of a prostitute. Likewise, the fidelity-representing dog in Titian’s work is replaced by a black cat which are usually associated with devilry, mischief, and feminine wiles. Furthermore, Olympia gazes coldly yet daringly at us as we are forced to acknowledge this reality. (Fun fact: the name Olympia was associated with prostitutes as many nicknamed themselves after goddesses).  

In all, there is no classical illusion or gentle nature. Instead, Manet rejects the past in favor for the modern world. With this rejection, critics struck back harshly as many viewed such a clear depiction of a prostitute as indecent and shameful! Félix Jahyer describes the painting and artist saying,  

“Such indecency…he has made himself the apostle of the ugly and repulsive.”

Félix Jahyer

Yikes, he’s not holding back!  

Ready or Not Here Comes Modernism!

Considered too modern, Olympia is a great example of a modernist work. Manet even combined styles of Impressionism and Realism showing his open embrace for new techniques! Since he was not afraid to depict everyday life, Manet often focused on lower classes or ‘less desirable’ folks. Through Olympia, Manet humanizes prostitution in a society that did not want to be reminded of its existence! In praise for his work, Émile Zola sums Manet’s approach nicely saying,  

“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.” 

émile Zola

Ha! What’s repulsive for some people was refreshing for others! Still, I find that the clear representation of a modern world and people’s negative reactions towards it shows us that the modern world was full of uncertainty as the classical past began to disappear and a new unknown future emerged.  

That said, what do you think?  

A Feminist Approach

Maid in Manet’s Olympia (Detail)

Looking beyond, feminists view Manet’s Olympia in reference to the male gaze which theorizes that painted nude women are objects for male consumption and amusement. In response, Olympia presented a female nude figure that boldly and unashamedly takes charge of her sexuality. Likewise, Black feminists focused on the presence of the black maid which showed a stark contrast between whiteness and blackness and highlighted Western racial stereotypes. Once again, Manet invites us to ponder reality and the people surrounding us! 

Manet’s prostitute and servant are based off real models: Victorine and Laure, respectively. Besides being a muse for other painters, Victorine Meurent was a fellow artist! The Paris Salon displayed several of her works. In her own right, Meurent is an important female figure. 

Likewise, Laure has become an important black female figure. Following the French abolition of slavery, Laure became a member of a growing black working class. She appears in several paintings including Olympia. Laure’s modeling alludes to Paris’ changing population and a growing presence of black identity. In Olympia, some even claim that her depiction in a clean white dress elevates her beyond the status of a common servant. In relation to this, Denise Murrell states,

“She’s not bare-breasted or in the gorgeously rendered exotic attire of the harem servant, […] Here she almost seems to be a friend of the prostitute, maybe even advising her.”

Denise Murrell

Overall, Laure prompts us to look beyond stereotypes to see the presence of a black female in a modern society.  

Where do you stand? What do you find most compelling about Olympia? Let me know in the comments! To visit this painting, stop by the Musée d’Orsay (and do a treasure hunt too!). For more blog posts on art, click here! Keep an eye out for more content and thanks for reading! 

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