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?
Ingres, La Grand Odalisque, 1814
Titia, Venus of Urbino, 1538
Giorgione , Sleeping Venus , c. 1510, also known as the Dresden Venus
Édouard Manet was one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life, and a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. His early works, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) and Olympia, both painted in 1863, caused great controversy and served as rallying points for young painters who would introduce Impressionism. Today, these are considered watershed paintings that mark the genesis of modern art.
Manet put great emphasis on acceptance by the Paris Salon. In fact, he believed that success as an artist could only be obtained through recognition at the Salon.
Spanish Guitar Player, painted in 1862, reflected the Parisian love of “all things Spanish” and was one of Manet’s first works to be accepted by the Salon, however it was not this painting which brought his much sought after recognition (notoriety) but the rejected Dejeuner sur l’herbe.
He became friends with the Impressionists Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro through another painter, Berthe Morisot, who was a member of the group and drew him into their activities. She is credited with convincing Manet to attempt plein air painting, which she had been practicing since she was introduced to it by another friend of hers, Camille Corot.
Although his own work influenced and anticipated the Impressionist style, he resisted involvement in Impressionist exhibitions, partly because he didn’t wish to be seen as the representative of a group identity, and partly because he wanted the prestige of exhibiting at the Salon.
He was influenced by other Impressionists, especially Monet and Morisot. Their influence is seen in Manet’s use of lighter colours, but he retained his distinctive use of black, uncharacteristic of Impressionist painting. He painted many outdoor (plein air) pieces, but always returned to what he considered the serious work of the studio.
Some of Manet’s best-loved works are his café scenes. His completed paintings were often based on small sketches he made while out socializing. These works, including At the Café, The Beer Drinkers and The Café Concert, amongst others, depict 19th-century Paris. He sought to illuminate the rituals of both common and bourgeoisie French people. His subjects are reading, waiting for friends, drinking and working. In stark contrast to his café scenes, Manet also painted the tragedies and triumphs of war.
Edouard Manet, Young Flautist, or The Fifer, 1866
Edouard Manet, At the Café, 1878
Edouard Manet, The Monet Family is their Garden at Argenteuil, 1874
Édouard Manet, Boating , 1874
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882
Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863
Edouard Manet, The Railway, 1872
Edouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1867
Impressionism (1870 – 1890), which can be considered to be the first of the Modern Art movements, had its immediate roots in the traditions of Realism. Realist painters such as Courbet, Millet and Corot were capturing scenes from the ‘natural’ world and people going about their everyday lives, particularly in the countryside.
The Impressionists also developed an interest in contemporary subject matter, but of an informal and pleasurable kind, especially aspects of the social life of Paris and its surrounds.
A key difference in style between the Realists and Impressionists was that whilst the Realists focused more on the detail of their subject matter, the Impressionists were intent on capturing the most fleeting aspects of nature – especially the changing light of the sun. Most Realist artists made sketches or studies to be completed back in the studio, and often used models and other props to help them finalise their works. The Impressionists also went out into the countryside but chose to paint outdoors (en plein air), often returning to the same spot on several occasions, at the same time of the day, to complete their work. This was made possible because of the increasing number of train routes from Paris to the nearby countryside, and new inventions such as portable and collapsible easels, paint in tubes, a greater range of colours and paintbrushes which were stronger and thicker.
Other artists who influenced the Impressionist style included Édouard Manet, Eugéne Delacroix and English painter J. M. W. Turner.
Édouard Manet’s was developing a new approach to painting, with innovations in both colour and brushwork.
Traditionally artists had begun painting their canvases with a layer of dark paint and then built lighter layers of paint on top, waiting for each layer to dry before adding the next one. Finally, they glazed the painting to give the surface a smooth finish. The whole process could take weeks or months.
Manet preferred to complete his portraiture paintings in one sitting whilst his models were sitting in front of him. He did this by painting in a single layer and leaving the final product unglazed. When he made a mistake, he scraped off the paint down to the bare canvas, and then repainted that area.
Manet also painted in patches of colour to make sharper contrasts. Instead of painting a range of progressively lighter or darker shades of an object to indicate how close it was to a light source, he would simply apply a patch of pure colour.
The Impressionists adopted and modified Manet’s alla prima (at once) painting technique to enable them to capture the shifting effects of light, and also modified his method of applying colour patches by breaking them up into much tinier patches, flecks, and dabs of colour. Impressionists also “loaded” the paint on the surface, when the accepted tradition of the time was to paint shadows thinly. They also used white, or very lightly tinted colours, to add to brilliance of colour and luminosity to their work.
The Impressionists were also indebted to Romanticist Eugéne Delacroix for his use of intense colours and pure undiluted pigment. He also began placing pure colours next to each other noticing they would mix in the eye.
J.M.H. Turner’s abstract portrayal of light and the elemental forces of nature also laid the ground work for impressionism.
Impressionism can be identified by the following features:
Contemporary social life of a middle class in the cities and suburbs usually at leisure as the main subject;
Painting in the evening to get effets de soir – the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight.
The composition implies a glimpse or fleeting impression of a scene;
Painters experimented with varying elements such as light and viewpoint;
Painters observed nature in natural light;
Figures and objects have no outlines, contrast of colour and value create shapes instead;
Compositions are cropped, partial figures, unusual points of view above or below the scene, awkward poses suggesting imminent movement;
In paintings made en plein air (outdoors), shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness and openness that was not captured in painting previously. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
The Impressionists relaxed the boundary between subject and background so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance.
Short, thick strokes of paint are used to quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto. (Paint is laid on an area of the surface (or the entire canvas) very thickly, usually thickly enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. Paint can also be mixed right on the canvas. When dry, impasto provides texture, the paint coming out of the canvas.)
Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colours occurs in the eye of the viewer.
Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. In pure Impressionism the use of black paint is avoided.
Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and an intermingling of colour.
Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes) which earlier artists built up carefully to produce effects. The surface of an Impressionist painting is typically opaque.
The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the reflection of colours from object to object.
Consider the images in the gallery below. The first three paintings are by Manet, Turner and Delacroix. Can you see how they may have influenced the brushwork and colouring of the following Impressionist works?
In my next blog, I’ll talk some more about the Impressionist style and introduce a few of the key artists; Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt.