The painting ‘Olympia’ by Edouard Manet may seem ‘tame’ by today’s standards and in contrast to say music video’s that feature scantily clad women. The painting which depicts a nude woman lying on a bed being brought flowers by a servant is now considered a groundbreaking moment in art history.
When it was painted in 1865 and first shown to critics and the public it received a negative response. Conservatives condemned the work as ‘immoral’ and ‘vulgar.’
What was the fuss? Manet’s (the “Father of Impressionism”) paintings are considered by some to be the first genuinely modernist paintings. Manet drew inspiration from such artists as Goya and Valaesquez and Frans Hals. He broke with classical tradition portraying the real-life people of Paris.
“Manet’s modernity is not just a function of how he painted but also what he painted.” The way the painting’s subject is depicted via her accessories suggests she is a prostitute. The orchid in Olympia’s hair, as well as the decadent surroundings, confrontational gaze as well as her name, are all pointers that Manet indeed wished to portray a prostitute in this scene. Olympia was, in fact, a name associated with Prostitutes in Paris in the 1860’s. We know in actuality the model in the art was a French Salon painter.
“In using a contemporary subject which was not Venus, Manet mocked tradition and, moreover dared to suggest that the classical past held no relevance for the modern industrial present.” The painting humanizes prostitution and depicts the seamier side of life or the marginalized in a society which wasn’t typically represented in the pictures of the time.
As inspiration, Manet used the painting the Venus of Urbino which was produced in 1538 by the Venetian Renaissance artist Titian and stripped it of its meaning. The painting’s flatness, inspired by Japanese woodblock art, serves to make the nude more human and less voluptuous. “Likewise, the alert black cat at the foot of the bed strikes a sexually rebellious note in contrast to that of the sleeping dog in Titian’s portrayal of the goddess in his Venus of Urbino.
“Olympia was the subject of caricatures in the popular press, but was championed by the French avant-garde community, and the painting’s significance was appreciated by artists such as Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and later Paul Gauguin.
The painting raised the issue of prostitution within contemporary France and the roles of women within society”.
Jones, Jonathan. “Olympia, Edouard Manet (1863)”. The Guardian. April 20, 2002. Accessed: November 17, 2017.
Folland, Tom. “Edouard Manet. Olympia.” in SmartHistory. December 9, 2015. Accessed: November 16, 2017.