The undisputed icon of modern art, now at the Musée d’Orsay, caused a scandal in its time. Why that? Because it was an image of a real woman, while the painting itself was following the codes of great paintings… Let me explain!

Olympia, Edouard Manet. 1863, Official Salon of 1865. Orsay Museum, Paris

In 1863, Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favourite model in the 1860s, posed for this nude, considered at the time to be the most scandalous female nude ever painted. Manet, had foreseen the storm and long hesitated to exhibit his work, he decided to do so only at the request of the writer Charles Baudelaire. The work was accepted at the Official Salon¹ of 1865, because the jury feared the organisation of a new Salon des refusés², as in 1863.

When the Olympia first confronted public opinion at the Salon in 1865, there was an outburst of indignation against it… It had to be moved and hung on the highest walls to avoid the anger of the gathered public. This courtesan lying naked on a bed, with a black woman carrying a bouquet, and a black cat, caused a riot, she was ridiculed and insulted with a rare violence, which affected Manet.

The subject is however, following the tradition of the female nude cultivated by the great masters such as Titian or Goya for example. Followed as well as by academic painters of the time, such as Ingres or Cabanel and his Birth of Venus acquired by Napoleon III at the Salon of 1863, following the characteristics of classicism to perfection.

Birth of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, Official Salon of 1863. Orsay museum, Paris.
Odalisque with Slave, Dominique Auguste Ingres, 1839. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge
Maja naked, Goya, 1797-1800. Prado Museum, Madrid.

But while these nudes were accepted thanks to their mythological, allegorical or symbolic cover, Manet paints the portrait of a prostitute staged as such. The title itself makes the subject explicit (Olympia was a common nickname among courtesans of the time), as does the little black cat on the right, an erotic allusion and an obvious metaphor for what is hidden by the hand, or the bouquet of flowers held out in the foreground by the black maid. This bouquet, certainly sent by a lover, was felt at the time to be a supreme provocation on Manet’s part.

The treatment of the body was another cause for scandal. The exhibition “Manet. Return to Venice” in 2013 allowed the Olympia to confront the painting that inspired Manet during a trip to Florence: Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The composition is largely inspired by this Italian work, but the nude is very far from it: here, there is no idealization, little modelling and a treatment in flat areas surrounded by black that goes against the academic principles of a smooth painting that leaves no traces.

Venus of Urbino, Titien, 1538. Uffizi Museum, Florence.
Picture of the exhibition “Manet. Return to Venice” Doge’s Palace, Venice. 2013

 Finally, this woman’s self-confidence, her straight and frank gaze were felt as an additional provocation on the part of the artist; one could see the obvious influence of prostitutes photographies of the time. What struck the best critics of the time though, was not the subject – provocative, yes- but the incredible “piece of painting”.

“You have succeeded admirably in making a work of a painter, a great painter … in translating energetically and in a particular language the truths of light and shadow, the realities of objects and creatures,” writes Zola.

Manet’s aim in painting the Olympia was not to provoke, his approach was sincere: “I did what I saw” he wrote in self-defence. But Olympia is a work of rupture, it is the last milestone in a tradition that goes back to the Italian Renaissance. It opens the way to modernity, to images of a contemporary reality that is not idealized but realistic, which the impressionists will claim a few years later.

Even if violently criticized, the work was offered to the State in 1890 thanks to a public subscription organized by Claude Monet. This subscription allows us today to admire Olympia at the Musée d’Orsay… well actually not right now, for the moment we’re staying at home and being safe… kinda like Venus 😉

¹ Official Salon: annual events during which artists present to the public works that have been previously examined and accepted by a jury.
² Salon des refusés: opened in Paris on 15 May 1863, on the fringe of the official Salon, on the initiative of Napoleon III, who considered the official jury too strict having refused 3,000 of the 5,000 works presented in 1863.

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