As he had in Luncheon on the Grass, Manet again used paintings by respected artists as a basis for the painting Olympia, 1863. The painting was a nude in a style not unlike early studio photographs, but the pose was modelled on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538.
Titian’s painting is in fact not dissimilar to an earlier work, The Sleeping Venus, painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione, and it now generally accepted that the landscape and sky were completed by Titian after Giorgione’s death in 1510.
The painting is also reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s painting The Nude Maja, 1800, and Ingres’ La Grand Odalisque, 1814.
Manet began the work after being challenged by the Paris Salon to submit a nude painting. His depiction of a self-assured prostitute was accepted by the Salon in 1865, but it created a scandal. According to French journalist and politician Antonin Proust, “only the precautions taken by the administration prevented the painting being punctured and torn” by offended viewers.
The painting was controversial partly because Olympia is wearing some small items such as an orchid in her hair, a bracelet, a ribbon around her neck, and slippers – all of which accentuated her nakedness, sexuality, and comfortable courtesan lifestyle. The orchid, upswept hair, black cat, and bouquet of flowers were all recognised symbols of sexuality at the time.
However, this modern Venus is thin, which was counter to prevailing standards, and so the painting’s lack of idealism rankled viewers.
The painting’s flatness, inspired by Japanese wood block art, serves to make the nude more human and less voluptuous. Olympia’s body, as well as her gaze, is unabashedly confrontational. She defiantly looks out to the viewer as her maid offers flowers from one of her male suitors. Although her hand rests on her leg, hiding her pubic area, the reference to traditional female virtue is ironic; a notion of modesty is notoriously absent in this work.
A critic denounced Olympia’s “shamelessly flexed” left hand, which seemed to him a mockery of the relaxed, shielding hand of Titian’s Venus. Similarly, 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.
As with Luncheon on the Grass, the painting raised the issue of prostitution within contemporary France and the roles of women within society.
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.
What reaction do you have this painting, when compared with earlier works of similar subjects?
This is an excerpt from my interactive online modern art appreciation program http://www.modernartappreciation.com