The critics and audience at the Paris Salons were used to seeing nude women in art. But these nudes were called Venus, Odalisque or some such allegorical title that cloaked their eroticism in the guise of an edifying classical image. Manet however called this painting of a nude female with her African servant presenting her flowers (presumably from an admirer) Olympia, ensuring that all who saw the image knew that this woman was a prostitute, and a successful one at that. In Second Empire Paris, Olympia was a name commonly adopted by high-class courtesans or ‘kept’ women, and this insouciant Olympia, who stared out of the picture frame at the respectable spectator without a hint of shame, was beyond the pale.
The Salon of 1865 ended up being called a ‘triumph of vulgarity’ and Olympia was its star. That it had been accepted by the Salon jury in the first place was surprising, especially after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe had caused a similar uproar in 1863 (see page 174). But perhaps the jury had done their homework and noted that Manet had taken inspiration from a long tradition of female nudes, particularly Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Goya’s Maja desnuda and the theme of the odalisque and African slave, which had been depicted by Ingres and others, to some acclaim. The image is also technically brilliant: note the marvellous impressionistic flowers, the subtle pink flecks on the servant’s dress and Olympia’s perfectly modelled form.
But Manet swept away any pretence of decorum and instead portrayed the cold reality of prostitution. At the time, there were some 5000 registered prostitutes and a further 30,000 unregistered prostitutes in Paris, who serviced a mostly middle class clientele. Many Second Empire gentlemen – the same ones who might buy ‘tasteful’ academic nudes – went to prostitutes or kept women and here, at a respectable exhibition, was one of them brazenly staring back at them. The shock that audiences felt at seeing Olympia was perhaps the shock of recognition; she was a reality that was not spoken of in polite society. Critics called it ‘immoral’, ‘vulgar’ and a ‘yellow-bellied odalisque’. Manet was shocked at the reaction and told Baudelaire that he had never been so insulted. He was interested in the new social mobility of Paris society, in how the classes interacted and how money equalled power, and with Olympia, Manet had wanted simply to paint the world as he saw it.
Manet depicts her without romanticism – her strong angular body is portrayed with harsh light and colour contrasts and appears more serviceable than voluptuous – but also with sympathy. Her expression is both bold and sad; her’s is a daring that comes from knowing you have few choices. Yet, wearing only a velvet choker and dangling a yellow mule from a bare foot, she is all business, returning the viewer’s gaze with a bored confidence that would have made many squirm: she is sizing up the client, not the other way around. The black cat (often a symbol of lewdness in art) with its tale suggestively raised and the crumpled bed (the result of the previous client?), bring home the pragmatic nature of this transaction.
It was a strong, uncompromising picture that attacked the foundation of academic art and the hypocrisy of modern society and among Manet’s admirers, it was considered brilliant. Manet’s friend the writer Emile Zola, wrote: ‘It will endure as the characteristic expression of his talent, as the highest mark of his power… when other artists correct nature by painting Venus they lie. Manet asks himself why should I lie? Why not tell the truth?’
The model is Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favourite model for several years who appears in eight other works by Manet, including Dejeuner sur l’herbe. (After falling out with Manet, Meurent became a painter and her academic-styled work was accepted to the Salon in 1876, the same year Manet’s was rejected).
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1862 James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Symphony in White: No 1 The White Girl, Washington DC, National Gallery of Art
1862 William Powell Frith: The Railway Station, Royal Holloway College, University of London
1863 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, London, Tate