A confrontation with Manet’s Olympia

Manet’s Olympia predictably scandalised the public when it was first exhibited in 1863, and it’s not hard to see why. Even now, in our more enlightened times, there’s something about that painting I find curiously disconcerting. I always find myself uncomfortable standing before it, or even when I see it in reproduction. And, when I stood before it again last week at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I found myself disconcerted all over again.

olympia

“Olympia” by Edouard Manet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

It is not the nudity that is disconcerting. Art lovers are hardly unused to nudity: they were familiar with it even in the mid nineteenth century. The same year that Manet exhibited Olympia, Alexandre Cabanel, a respected and respectable artist, exhibited The Birth of Venus, in which Venus is forced into a tortuous pose so as to reveal as much of her nude female form as is possible. It is a painting that seems almost to salivate over the female form in a most lascivious manner. And yet, it created no shock, no scandal: indeed the painting was actually bought by Napoleon III himself. And yet, the same society that had no difficulty with the flagrant titillation of Cabanel’s painting found itself shocked by Manet’s. Whatever the reason for the shock, it was not the nudity.

cabanel

“The Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel, courtesy Musée de Louvre, Paris

 

Of course, as any basic primer will tell you, Manet and various other artists of his generation, known collectively (though not really very helpfully) as the “Impressionists”, rebelled against the accepted norms of the time, and changed the face of Western art. (Or something like that.) It is also fairly well-known that these artists only challenged the norms of the time, but were fully aware of, and, indeed, respected, the older traditions of Western art. Manet’s outrageous Olympia, for instance, clearly references Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the comparisons between the two masterpieces are fascinating.

venusurbino

“Venus of Urbino” by Titian, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

The title of Titian’s painting refers to the goddess Venus, but the person we see is clearly a courtesan. Or, more plainly, a prostitute, though, admittedly, a high-class one. The two ladies adopt almost an identical pose, but with some significant variations. While Titian’s courtesan slightly inclines her head, Manet’s holds her head up straight. They both look directly at the viewer, but the expression on the face of Titian’s courtesan is gentle, and welcoming: the expression in Manet’s painting is bold, direct, even, perhaps, confrontational. The flower in the hair and the ribbon round the neck are clearly intended to be seductive, but there’s nothing seductive about the utterly unembarrassed and challenging look she directs at the viewer. If anything, it is we who wither in the spotlight of her gaze. (Cabanel’s Venus, in contrast, does not show her face at all: she is merely a body, and nothing more.)

And the left hand. Titian’s courtesan places her left hand gently upon her pudenda, pretending coyly to hide the very part of her body she is drawing attention to. In Manet’s painting, the left hand is placed upon her privates palm downwards, as if it has been slapped down. Titian’s courtesan is long-limbed and graceful: Manet’s is short-limbed; indeed, were it not for the fully developed breasts, she could easily be mistaken for a child.

It is no wonder Manet’s painting shocked. And I find myself shocked still. Well, if not perhaps shocked – for it is very bad form these days to admit to being shocked by mere works of art – I find myself feeling very uncomfortable. For Manet’s painting does, indeed, speak to me. That brazen figure, so unashamed of her nudity, is saying something. And what she seems to be saying is:

“Have you paid yet?”

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25 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by caromalc on July 31, 2017 at 12:52 am

    To me, it looks like she’s saying, “Have you had your fill yet?” I don’t find this an especially disturbing picture but that is probably because I am not a particularly thoughtful person when it comes to the arts.

    There is another aspect to this picture – the black woman holding a basket of flowers. All your eye goes to the nude woman but the black one is just as large though her attention, like ours, is focussed on the nude one. And she seems to have a puzzled look on her face, like ours maybe.

    Reply

    • Hello Caroline, I’m sure your personal reaction to this painting is every bit as valid as mine!

      I’m glad you mentioned the woman standing to the right of the picture. I hadn’t mentioned her because I was focussing on the nude figure (don’t I always? 😉 ) rather than attempting a comprehensive analysis of this painting. (I wouldn’t be able to do that even if I wanted to.) So I haven’t touched on such matters as the deliberately flat, two-dimensional nature of the space; the composition; the colouring; the different textures of the skin, the bedcover, and the bedsheets; etc. etc.

      The background is painted in such colours that the black woman, presumably a servant, tends to blend into the background, whereas the nude figure stands out, as it is she who is obviously the centre of attraction here. We obviously read different things into expressions, but to me, she is someone who is accustomed to her job, and her look seems to be asking “Is everything all right? Anything more I can do?”

      I’m sure there’s much to be written about her function in this painting, although I’m not the person to do that. What a fascinating painting this is!

      Reply

  2. Having visited art galleries many a time while posted to London, the nude that impressed me most was Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres immaculate “La Grande Odalisque” (1814) in Paris. Hanging above a doorway, in the Louvre, the texture of flesh, the languid, warm elegance and her peculiar, insistent stare left me spellbound. And yes, I had seen the painting often enough in art books, but without much reaction.

    Reply

    • Ah yes, I remember that one in the Louvre. The lady with the very long back… It is, as you say, a very memorable image.

      Whenever we read about the Impressionists (or, for that matter, about modernists) we always read about how they “swept away” the tired old values of the past to create a new form of art. In reality, the Impressionist artists (and the modernists) knew and had a proper admiration for what went before. degas, for instance, was a huge admirer of both Ingres and of Delacroix.

      Reply

  3. Manet’s Olympia is oddly proportioned, somewhat like Goya’s majas. There’s nothing seductive about her, agreed; also, her pose is unnatural. In contrast, Millais’ Ophelia – painted a decade earlier – while fully clothed, is erotically appealing, although, I admit, in a perverse Victorian way.

    Reply

    • She is certainly laid out for display, as it were, but her posture and her expression are both so defiant and confrontational that it is we (perhaps I should say “I”) who feel disconcerted!

      Among the many things I forgot to mention is that it is a very large canvas. This is something you obviously don’t get from reproductions, but the very size of the painting is intimidating. (Or maybe it’s just me who gets easily intimidated…)

      Reply

      • I haven’t been at the d’Orsay for quite a while but I’m pretty sure that I would still remember being shocked if I had been then. Let’s say I have never enjoyed this painting: it seems straightforwardly realistic (never mind the Impressionist label), even naturalistic, and the reality behind it isn’t pretty.

      • I agree, impressionism label is misleading. For one thing, the outlines seem to me very firmly drawn – not a practice I associate with Impressionism in general. I agree also that the reality behind it isn’t pretty, but then, it isn’t meant to be either. As for “realism”, I guess that depends on how one defines the term. Pictorially, there seems, to my admittedly inexpert eyes, a great deal of artifice employed. For example, by placing a flat background immediately behind the figures, and parallel to the viewer’s field of vision, Manet has quite deliberately done away with spatial depth: the third dimension is barely apparent at all. (I am reliably informed that Manet was much influenced in this by Japanese prints.)

        I am not sure that “shocked” is the right word to use here, but yes, I did feel very uncomfortable standing in front of this, and can understand why, at the time, the public didn’t take to it. The reality it depicts is not pretty, no, but the painting did affect me powerfully, and I have no doubt that this, and “Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe” (painted at around the same time, and hannging in the same gallery) are both masterpieces.

  4. Posted by alan on July 31, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    I think she looks bored.

    Reply

    • Yes, there is certainly more than an element of boredom in her expression – though she doesn’t look nearly as bored as the pretty barmaid at the Folies-Bergère that manet painted some twenty years later. (See here. This Folies-Bergère painting is in the Courtauld Collection Somerset House, and, were it not for the fact that, unlike the National Gallery, the Courtauld Collection charges admission, I’d go to see this painting more often when I’m in London, as it’s an absolutely fabulous painting. But I digress…)

      Going back to “Olympia”, I get the impression of someone who is very self-assured and business-like, and who cannot even be bothered to feign seductiveness because she knows she doesn’t have to. Yes, she is also no doubt bored, but it’s all part of the job…

      Reply

      • Posted by alan on August 2, 2017 at 12:05 am

        The black woman could be thinking “the flowers are lovely what’s wrong?” and the reclining woman could be thinking “sod that, I want hard cash, what do you think this is?”

  5. Posted by alan on August 2, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Is it coincidental that Dostoevsky’s underground man, published the following year, attends an establishment that employs a woman of the same name?

    Reply

    • Interesting … I hadn’t remembered that Dostoyevsky had given her that name. Dostoyevsky was in Paris in the summer of 1862, a year before Olympia was exhibited. It seems to me unlikely that Dostoyevsky would even have known about that painting. But who knows … the painting did cause a scandal, after all, and Dostoyevsky may have heard it mentioned. Interesting connection!

      Reply

    • Laurence Chafe explains:

      “It [Olympia] often claimed to be the name used by prostitutes but a list of pseudonyms compiled by Parent-Duchételet in 1836 shows that the French form ‘Olympe’ was more common than the classical Olympia. Olympe was a courtesan in Alexandre Dumas’s popular play La Dame aux camellias but perhaps more relevant, the name of the strong, brazen heroine in the very popular opera Herculanum by Félicien David.”

      Dostoevsky might have Russified “Olympe” as “Olympia” (aw-LIM-pea-yah, sort of). I would bet that he was aware of the scandal at the 1865 Salon (while writing The Gambler in Wiesbaden) but we have to get the timing right here. Manet exhibited the Déjeuner sur l’herbe at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. As for Olympia, Manet painted it in 1863 but only exhibited in May 1865, at the regular annual Salon. By then, Notes from the Underground had already been published.

      Reply

      • Thanks for that – that’s really interesting. I had picked up the date 1863 in relation to Manet’s painting, and hadn’t twigged that it wasn’t exhibited till 1865.

  6. Posted by Chris Jennings on August 5, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    Hi again Himadri,

    I think you’re seeing Olympia exactly as Manet intended: as a real social being. There is a deliberate absence of any allegorising of her (the connection to Titian is made only to underline the contrast), and so the usual male viewers can’t enjoy the titillating fact of what she is, at one remove. Instead it’s a direct presentation of a prostitute as a prostitute. It’s rubbing the public’s noses in it, and I imagine this is what caused the scandal: The Pretty Women of Paris were supposed to be an unspoken pleasure… This is what makes Manet different from the Impressionists, I think, apart from his use of black: he was very interested in the traditional psychological language of painting, as was his great early influence, Courbet (Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du Monde’ has a similar directness). One can’t imagine Monet, for example, being interested in this subject except insofar as a certain type of reflected indoor light might alter the colours of flesh.

    As with literature, I think the historical groupings of different artists proves rather crude once you take a real interest in what each artist is actually doing. Bonnard, for example, who is usually associated with ‘Post-Impressionism’ (another very unsatisfactory grouping) is to my mind far closer to ‘Impressionism’ than Manet.

    Best,
    Chris

    Reply

    • Posted by Chris Jennings on August 5, 2017 at 7:34 pm

      Looking again, I think I’m wrong in implying the Titian is allegorical: there are so many allegorical Titians that I’m forgetting that here he is actually pretty direct. Despite the title, ‘Venus of Urbino’ is as you say obviously a courtesan, though the pose and expression is softer and more come-hither, not half so businesslike as Olympia. In that sense, the Manet is actually a return to a more honest picture – certainly more honest than the Cabanal. But it’s still 19th century French society, the bourgoisie (many of whom were the customers of such women), that is the target.

      Reply

      • Hello Chris,
        I agree that the catch-all term “Impressionist” is misleading. Same with any such term – Romanticism, modernism, post-impressionism, post-modernism … you name it. I think it is recognised that a new generation of artists came about who wanted to do things differently, but these artists were so varied in their aims and practices, that it’s not really very useful to lump them together. I see very little in common between, say, Manet and Monet.

        One parallel I find with what was going on in the other arts is a sort of “democratisation”. This didn’t happen suddenly, or overnight, or all at the same time, but over time, it happened: just as Manet’s nude is a real person in a real (contemporary) social context, so drama was no longer about kings and queens and nobles, but about the kind of people who were in the audience, speaking not in verse, but as the audience did; novels focussed almost exclusively on people in ordinary walks of lives, finding tragic stories not in Electra or Medea, but in Anna Karenina and Nana Coupeau; operas started to focus on figures like Violetta and Carmen; and so on. We take this for granted now, but it was quite a revolution!

        As I said, this did not all happen at the same time, and it was by no means schematic. But Manet’s “Olympia” does not seem to me too far from, say, Zola’s Nana.

      • Posted by Chris Jennings on August 10, 2017 at 12:48 pm

        That’s a good point about ‘democratisation’. I remember you didn’t much enjoy Harold Bloom’s book on Shakespeare because of his tendency to make unsupported pronouncements, iirc, but this does remind me of his rather grand Viconian plan in The Western Canon: the idea that the arts generally have gone from portraying gods to heroes to ordinary men as they progress through what Vico called the Theocratic, the Aristocratic, and the Democratic ages – and Bloom believes we are now returning to a new Theocratic Age. I don’t know about the Viconian cycle or the return but I agree on the general tendency, so there must be some use to these critical categories!

        I’ve always found attempts to relate ideas and techniques across different arts interesting and enlightening – Debussy and Turner, say, or Eliot’s Four Quartets and the late Beethoven quartets – but I’m not sure there are any critical histories that do so except incidentally. Maybe such experts feel too conscious they are straying out of their area, I don’t know, or maybe it would prove too nebulous a subject to sustain at length.

      • I came across the Viconian idea of cycles of time when I was trying, some years ago, to make a few inroads into Finnegans Wake. I didn’t manage to read the whole book, but I did read parts of it, and read quite a bit about it. And it seems that the cyclical structure of the book (the unfinished sentence at the end can be completed by the unstarted sentence at the beginning) is based on Vico’s idea of the cyclic nature of time. I don’t know that we’re necessarily returning to the Theocratic Age (although I’d be interested to know why Bloom thinks so), but in terms of the kind of characters and social environments explored in both fiction and in drama, there has certainly been what may be called a “democratisation”.

        Like yourself, I too find it enlightening to find cross-currents between different art forms. When in the Musee d’Orsay a few weeks ago, it very much seemed to me that French paintings of the latter half of the nineteenth century complemented French novels of that era. I suppose this is partly because of the illustrations chosen by Penguin Classics as covers for these novels, but Dega’s “L’Absinthe”, for instance, immediately brought to mind Zola’s L’Assommoir (it used to be on the cover of the old Penguin Classics version of the novel). And Olympia would hardly be out of place on the cover of Nana.

    • Posted by Chris Jennings on September 9, 2017 at 12:03 pm

      Yes, the Penguin covers are themselves a sort of random mini-history of art as it might relate to the contemporary literature: from the drawing of Isis holding her rainbow on the front of The Aeneid, or the delicate painting of the back view of a woman plucking a flower on Horace’s Odes, or the magnificent shield from Sutton Hoo on Beowulf, all the way through to the covers of the pale green Modern Classics. For some reason I remember especially the cocked little finger of the woman drinking tea on the front cover of The Bostonians, and the cubist painting (an early Duchamp!) on Gide’s Fruits of the Earth.

      I’m sure there’s an interesting essay in all this somewhere, even a nebulous thesis…

      Reply

  7. I saw “Olympia” at the Musee d’Orsay’s “Spendor and Misery” exhibition in 2015, a show about Parisian prostitution. In that context, “Olympia” seemed a pretty tame picture though I admit that as a late middle-aged prude I was discomfited by almost all of the exhibition. I do think the placement of her left hand shows an attitude of something being deliberately kept from the viewer, maybe as you say, until payment is rendered, though the black cat at the foot of the bed was at the time a visual pun for what Olympia is covering.

    I wonder if it’s significant that she’s wearing shoes? You usually don’t see that on a classical nude.

    The painting is a brilliant composition, with its informal balance of light and dark, and the play of textures across the surfaces, the bouquet of flowers continued down into the nude’s silk robe at the foot of the bed. Just fabulous work. The servant’s single red earring–the only place on the canvas where red appears–is an exquisite touch.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott, I am by no means qualified to write about art – but then again, I am not qualified to write about any of the other subjects I write about on this blog! But seriously – when I was looking at the painting and trying to think what it said to me, “Have you paid yet?” seemed to occur irresistibly. And I knew right away I had the punchline to a blog post!

      Classic nudes do not wear shoes, but models in erotica often do. (So I am told, you understand… 🙂 ) Everything about her – the shoes, the ribbon around the neck and flower around her hair, the bracelet – are intended to enhance her erotic and seductive appeal. Except her posture, and her look, which seem to me to project not seductiveness, not welcome, but a sort of defiance. There seems something very incongruous between the set-up (which is intended to be seductive), and her actual person, which clearly isn’t. It is this incongruence that makes for such an uncomfortable picture.

      Pictorially, as you say, this is just superb. The longer I look at this painting, the more I admire it.

      Reply

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