Bringing Olympia Into the Present
by Lydia Geraldi
Manet completed one of his most famous and perhaps most intriguing paintings in 1863. Ultimately entitled Olympia, the image not only enraged the public of nineteenth century France, but it also called into question the validity of traditional narrative themes as a basis for modern French painting. While the prototype for Olympia was Titian's Venus of Urbino, the cultural context embedded in Manet's painting perhaps suggests a much more contemporary theme than that of the Old Master. In light of this, it seems necessary to consider how Manet attempted, and eventually succeeded in transforming an image of a mythic woman into a contemporary courtesan.
Manet completed Olympia in 1863. It was the same year that he completed and submitted Luncheon on the Grass to the official Salon where it was rejected and instead shown at the Salon des Refuses. The image, two fully clothed men and one nude woman engaged in casual conversation in an outdoor setting, was greeted with criticism and indignation from the French public and critics. Thus began Manet's notoriety, from which he was to suffer so long.1 Luncheon on the Grass introduced Manet as an artist who did not follow the established techniques of academic painting.
After the negative attention Luncheon on the Grass received, Manet waited two years, until 1865, before submitting Olympia to the Salon. The image was accepted and shown along side Manet's religious piece Christ Scourged. Manet again "challenged the established order with his versions of two eminently respectable themes: a religious painting depicting Christ Scourged, and a rather large study of the female nude, Olympia."2 Like Luncheon on the Grass, Olympia was vehemently criticized by the public and the critics who failed to understand the significance of Manet's vision which saw modernity as his only valid subject.
Although Olympia presently hangs in the Louvre and is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the nineteenth century, even Napoleon III was involved in a public action that highlighted the Academy's disapproval of such a painting. Alexander Cabanel was another artist who exhibited a painting of the love goddess at the Salon of 1865. His Birth of Venus, which was highly acclaimed at the Salon, was purchased by Napoleon III himself, to be placed in the Royal collection. This was a direct action taken against Olympia by the French ruler to show his support of the academic tradition, and his disapproval of the avant-garde.
Manet created an image that blurred the boundaries between the past and present. He had challenged the academic tradition of French painting which emphasized the use of classical figures involved in mythological themes as the only appropriate subject matter for art. Manet did classicize and place his figures in somewhat mythological settings, but his images spoke of the present, instead of the past. He had embarked on the "daunting task of mingling contradictory ideas: classical and modern, mythic and actual, genre and portrait, precision and fluidity."3
This deviation from the "norm" of traditional French painting caused the Parisian public to enter into a state of near panic. Facing Olympia, an image of an ordinary woman who appeared to be confrontational instead of pleasurable, active instead of passive, and contemporary instead of mythic, was enough to change the face of French art forever. While Luncheon on the Grass was somewhat threatening and did cause an uproar among the French public, it was Olympia and her impudent gaze that set the stage for Manet's emergence as the father of the modern tradition.
In 1856 Manet went to Florence where he made a copy of Titian's Venus of Urbino. This recreation was to become the compositional prototype he used for Olympia. The Venus image created by Titian is clearly a product of Renaissance art; she stands for both the sensuality and classicism that we ascribe to the cultural rebirth of this era.4 But interestingly, Titian's Venus is rather unusual because it depicts the female nude as beholding the beholder directly. Titian had also deviated from the "norm" of his era by creating an image that interacted with its audience. Her gaze is coy and flirtatious; it does not threaten the viewer. Her hand delicately curves over genital area as if inviting, not concealing.5 The Venus of Urbino is an entertaining image that does not cause the viewer to feel uncomfortable, but instead arouses the spectator's interest in a more refined state of pleasure.
Titian's Venus appears in her bedroom. The compositional space has been split into two sections; Venus inhabits the foreground, and her servants appear busy looking for something in the background. She is feminine, voluptuous, and clearly an image of idealized beauty. Her attributes include a small dog at her feet, which is a sign of fertility. The chests in the background are a symbol of marriage, and the view of trees are a sign of fecundity.6 She holds a bunch of roses in her right hand, and on the window ledge in the background a myrtle plant in perpetual bloom has been depicted. "All of these symbols are traditionally associated with Venus, to define the very special kind of love that she represents in this image: the fruitful passion of licit love, not the quickly sated and sinful lust of the body, but the permanent bond of conjugal affection."7 "The image was seen as a marriage picture, the goddess of love characterized by her surrounding attributes as the protectress specifically of marital love."8
Manet's image portrays a somewhat similar, yet at the same time strikingly different image of a nude young woman than in Titian's painting. Olympia's pose seems awkward; she is propped up on pillows like the Venus of Urbino, but she is in a closed interior "which perhaps suggests that there is no way out of this kind of life for this kind of woman."9 Interestingly, even though Manet does not reveal the background to the viewer, the "pulled back curtain in the upper left corner is a traditional sign of truth revealed."10 By focusing all of the spectator's attention upon the scene in the foreground, Manet has set up a somewhat mysterious scene that the viewer is left to interpret.
As in Titian's image, the compositional space of Olympia has been separated into two distinct areas of light and dark. Olympia's body, the bed that she is lying on, and the bouquet that is being presented to her are in stark contrast with the background imagery. It is as if the wall, curtain, servant, and cat are composed of slight variations of the same dark colors. Manet's color is direct, there are no halftones, and no circumlocutions. Therefore, each element in the image either relates to the stark brightness of Olympia's body, or the darkness of the wall and curtain in the background. Manet's technique is perhaps not as visually pleasing as Titian's technique (which employs a full range of half tones), but perhaps Manet did not intend that viewers would feel at ease with his Olympia .
Olympia does lie in a provocative fashion, but she appears stiff and uncomfortable. Her figure is not voluptuous and appealing, but instead seems thin and pale. The sensual climate that the Venus establishes is alien to the rigid Olympia, who instead conveys a modern Parisian intelligence. Unlike the Venus, Olympia is not an idealized beauty. Her face is plain and somewhat ordinary, lacking the features of great feminine beauty. Her hand forcefully covers her genital area as if conveying the idea of limited access. The animal that lies at her feet is not a gentle lapdog, but instead an arching black cat which is a symbol of promiscuity and independence. The flowers brought by her servant personify "illicit sensuality not marriage."
"Olympia's unabashed gaze at the spectator, her indifference at the expensive offering, the aggressive pose of the cat, and especially the splayed fingers on her thigh, which call attention to her genitals, but forcefully express her protection of it, all serve to demonstrate the unremitting independence of this woman." Although her body is a commodity, it is she who has full control over it. Though a "courtesan rather than a goddess, she is not a sordid streetwalker or a victim of society." Olympia wears a gold bracelet, pearl earrings, a neck ribbon from which dangles a sperm-shaped jewel and she has a hothouse orchid in her hair. Olympia also lies upon an opulent bed with an exotic shawl. A well-dressed servant presents her with an extravagant bouquet of flowers that she disdains to look upon. All of these elements symbolize wealth and vanity and clearly indicate her status. Olympia was an example of a new phenomenon in modern French culture, the demimondaine, a woman who could negligently lie on a shawl worth hundreds of francs, and who was in charge of her own destiny. This was a popular contemporary theme that artists of this era were grappling to capture in both literature and art.
Manet's seemingly realistic portrayal of such a woman in such a setting seems to have somewhat accurately depicted this event; so much so that the French public could not bear to look upon the image. But perhaps what most offended the Parisian public of 1865, far more than the painting's disregard for established techniques of modeling and half tones, is the brazen look that defies the male onlooker. Olympia's gaze is directly confrontational, forcing the viewer to acknowledge his own presence in the scene. She is not teasing or flirting with the spectator as Titian's Venus does, but instead she appears alert, and aware of the situation at hand. Olympia is perhaps engaged in business deal with the viewer, or client, for services rendered.
The composition of Olympia in relation to her astute gaze sets the viewer up as active client instead of passive spectator. Manet has openly set up a realistic scene that was probably all too familiar for many Parisian men. Manet "contrived his attack on the spectator by making it plain that he cannot distance himself from the scene depicted, or see it from the outside, as he can so easily with the Old Master that Olympia debunks, Titian's Venus of Urbino." Olympia looks straight at the viewer as if acknowledging his presence, as does the black cat at her feet. There is no escape from the scene which places the spectator as participating client.
Being situated candidly as a perspective client would have probably been an extremely frightening experience for most men at the time. The thought of such a situation obviously enraged both men and women because it exemplified the darker social truth that plagued French society during this era. Prostitution was on the rise in Paris during this era, and so was the spread of syphilis. Interestingly, prostitutes instead of their clients, were mostly blamed for the contagion.
In 1862, one year prior to the creation of Olympia, Manet's father past away probably due to syphilis. Olympia does seem to directly reflect Manet's awareness of this social condition which affected his life, as well as others living in Europe at that time. Since prostitutes were considered responsible for the spread of syphilis, Olympia's health does appear questionable. The color of Olympia's skin was a topic of hot debate at the time, critics argued that "the woman posing as Olympia appeared as if in a state of near decomposition." Her flesh seems yellowish and rather pale. Her figure is thin and somewhat deathly. Olympia's appearance suggests the she may possibly be infected with the contagion that was plaguing Europe at the time.
Olympia does not strike the viewer as sensual and available, and she does not transcend the realm of the modern world. Instead, Olympia appears as an ordinary woman whose circumstances reflect contemporary Parisian life. This image is rivaled by few other works for celebrity or mystery. Manet attempted to blur the distinctions between the classical past and the living present with a painting of a young woman amid a questionable environment. His imaginative appropriation of Titian's original masterpiece The Venus of Urbino, worked only to legitimize the contemporary narrative of Olympia. Manet imaginatively and successfully transformed Titian's Venus into an image of a courtesan who reflected the setting of modern day France in the nineteenth century.
Kathleen Adler, Manet (Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1986) 60-62.
George Heard Hamilton, Manet and his Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954) 65-111.
Beth Archer Brombert, Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1996) 118-146.
David Rosand, Titian 500 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993) 101-119.
Dolores Mitchell, "Manet's Olympia: If Looks Could Kill," Source: Notes in the History of Art Vol. XIII, No. 3 (Spring 1994): 39-46.
George Mauner, Manet: Peintre-Philosophe (Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1975) 86-101.
Theordore Reff, "The Meaning of Manet's Olympia," Gazette Beaux Arts Vol. 63 (Fall 64): 111-122.
Paul Smith, Impressionism: Beneath the Surface (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1995) 33-83.
Adler, Kathleen. Manet. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1986.
Brombert, Beth Archer. Edouard Manet: Rebel in A Frock Coat. Toronto: Little, Brown and Company Limited, 1996.
Hamilton, George Heard. Manet and His Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.
Mauner, George. Manet: Peintre-Philosophe. Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.
Mitchell, Dolores. "Olympia: If Looks Could Kill." Source: Notes in the History of Art Vol. XIII, No. 3 (Spring 1994) 39-46.
Reff, Theodore. "The Meaning of Manet's Olympia." Gazette Beaux Arts Vol. 63 (Fall 1964) 111-122.
Rosand, David. Titian 500. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993.
Smith, Paul. Impressionism: Beneath the Surface. New York: Harry
N. Abrams Inc., 1995.