Edouard Manet’s Olympia caused great scandal in the 1860’s for its modern subject matter and its revolutionary treatment of that subject: the female nude. Today it is considered one of the masterpieces of modern painting and has influenced many generations of painters since. In this article, Singulart investigates the scandalous composition and its meaning and takes a closer look at the pioneer of Modernism.
Who was Edouard Manet?
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was a French modernist painter born in Paris to a wealthy family. He was expected to pursue a respectable career in law but instead followed the encouragement of his uncle and became a painter. From 1850 to 1856 he trained under the academic painter Thomas Couture and complemented his education by copying the Old Masters exhibited at the Louvre. During this time he also traveled extensively around Germany, Italy and the Netherlands and was influenced by the work of artists like Frans Hals, Diego Velazquez and Francisco Jose de Goya. His work bridges the gap between Realism and Modernism. He was inspired by the works of the realist painter Gustave Courbet in his early works but soon came to reject the conventions of painting leading to masterpieces such as Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass (both painted in 1863). Indeed, although Manet considered himself a realist, his radical style and subject matter has seen him classed as both the father of Impressionism and a pioneer of modernism. He was close friends with many of the impressionist painters during his lifetime and although his work was often ridiculed and widely mocked by contemporary critics, he was also supported by other creative minds of his time such as Emile Zola and Charles Baudelaire. Today his work holds an essential place in the history of art as the starting point of Modernism.
The story behind Manet’s Olympia
Manet’s Olympia is known as one of the most scandalous paintings of the 19th century and there are two main reasons for the shock and scandal it caused at the 1865 Salon: his reworking of the traditional theme of the female nude and his technical treatment.
Olympia, at first glance, easily recalls classical references of the nude female figure such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s Maja Desnuda. However, Manet departed from tradition with Olympia and updated the subject of the female nude, in order to create a more relevant image of the reality of modern life. Olympia depicts two women: one who lies naked on an unmade bed, with one shoe hanging off the end of her crossed feet, flowers in her hair and a black ribbon tied around her neck; the other is fully dressed and extends a bunch of flowers towards her.
Olympia’s nudity is enhanced by the harsh lighting and the sombre furnishings of the room. It is clear that she is not a goddess or a mythological woman, as were the traditional pretenses for painting the nude female form. She gazes emotionlessly and fearlessly, directly out of the canvas at the viewer and her hand lays not delicately in her lap, but defiantly in protection of her modesty and her independence. From the presence of the black cat and the slave, to the few details that adorn the naked woman’s body and her direct gaze, it is clear that Manet has depicted a prostitute and consequently places the viewer in the logical position of the client. It was this confrontation and the removal of all traditional pretext for representing the female nude that caused such an uproar among the critics and Manet’s contemporaries.
Manet modeled Olympia on Victorine Meurent, who herself went on to become a painter, and the figure of the slave on the model Laure. The nude figure takes up most of the length of the 74.8 x 51.4 inch canvas and her pale skin contrasts harshly with the dark background. In another departure from tradition, Manet painted in broad, quick brushstrokes, rather than creating a smooth perfect form in a luxurious setting, he depicts Olympia in unflattering light, in an unflattering setting with shallow depth and harsh contrasts, emphasizing the realness of her figure and her situation and leaving the viewer with no alternative but to confront it.