Olympia (Manet)  

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"Tell them aloud, dear master, that you are not what they think you are, that a painting is for you a mere pretext for analysis. You needed … clear and luminous tones, and you introduced a bouquet; you needed black tones and you placed in a corner a Negress and a cat." --"Édouard Manet, étude biographique et critique" (1867) by Émile Zola

"The "Olympia" by Manet is another expression of the supreme commonplace. The picture represents a well-battered prostitute, the common property of the common people of the boulevards, a truly democratic whore. What Manet did for ..."--The Revolt Against Beauty (1934) by John Hemming Fry

Olympia (detail) by Édouard Manet was a succès de scandale when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1865. Today, it is considered as the start of modern art.
Olympia (detail) by Édouard Manet was a succès de scandale when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1865. Today, it is considered as the start of modern art.

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Olympia is an oil on canvas painting by Édouard Manet in the Realism style. Painted in 1863, it stirred an uproar when it was first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon, because the gaze of the model was not that of a mythological Venus, but of a real-life "nini".

Her facial expression is noted for its frank gaze, but also for its tinges of unease, anger, lack of interest and bitterness[1].


Critical reaction

Though Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) sparked controversy in 1863, his Olympia stirred an even bigger uproar when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1865. Conservatives condemned the work as "immoral" and "vulgar." Journalist Antonin Proust later recalled,

If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration.

However, the work had proponents as well. Emile Zola quickly proclaimed it Manet's "masterpiece" and added,

When other artists correct nature by painting Venus they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?

The negative criticism included that of Jules Claretie, who in L'Artiste in May 1865 identified Olympia as "a courtesan no doubt" (une courtisane sans doute.) A few days earlier, Le monde illustré used a poem by Zacharie Astruc to brand this "auguste jeune fille," a courtesan.


The painting was inspired by Titian's Venus of Urbino, which in turn refers to Giorgione's Sleeping Venus. There were pictorial precedents for a nude woman, attended by a black servant, such as Ingres' Odalisque with a Slave (1842), Léon Benouville's Esther with Odalisque (1844) and Charles Jalabert's Odalisque (1842). Comparison is also made to Ingres' La Grande Odalisque (1814). But Manet did not depict a goddess or an odalisque, but a high-class prostitute waiting for a client. The classic work that most closely resembles Manet's in character is Francisco Goya's La maja desnuda (c. 1800).


What shocked contemporary audiences was not Olympia's nudity, nor even the presence of her fully clothed maid, but her confrontational gaze and a number of details identifying her as a demi-mondaine or courtesan, such as the orchid in her hair, her bracelet, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies, symbols of wealth and sensuality. The black ribbon around her neck, in stark contrast with her pale flesh, and her cast-off slipper underline the voluptuous atmosphere. Whereas Titian's Venus delicately covers her sex, Olympia's hand firmly protects hers, as if to emphasize her independence and sexual dominance over men. Manet replaced the little dog (symbol of fidelity) in Titian's painting with a black cat, which symbolized prostitution. Olympia disdainfully ignores the flowers presented to her by her servant, probably a gift from a client. Some have suggested that she is looking in the direction of the door, as her client barges in unannounced.

The painting deviates from the academic canon in its style, characterized by broad, quick brushstrokes, studio lighting that eliminates mid-tones, large color surfaces and shallow depth. Instead of a smooth idealised nude, as in Alexandre Cabanel's The Birth of Venus (also painted in 1863), Manet painted a real woman, whose nakedness is revealed in all its brutality by the harsh light.

The model, Victorine Meurent, went on to become an accomplished painter in her own right.

Caricatures and interpretations


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