The Olympia Scandal: Manet’s Interpretation of the Female Nude
by Stacy Fox
 
 

Olympia



     During the 1865 Salon exhibition, Eduoard Manet entered two paintings, one of which sparked strongly negative reviews from critics as well as the Parisian public.  This center of controversy was called Olympia, a painting that Manet created in 1863.  Manet painted Olympia according to his point of view, “that an artist has got to move with the times and paint what he sees” (Schneider 65).  Unfortunately, the public that received Olympia at the Salon in 1865 was not ready for and certainly did not agree with Manet’s ahead of the times philosophy.  The uproar in response to Olympia was not necessarily the fact that Manet’s subject was a nude woman.  Instead, the Parisian public’s hostile reaction to Olympia and Manet originated in their fear of the underlying prostitution in their society.  For Olympia’s audience, Manet was crossing the line of what was morally acceptable in art let alone in society.
     Before Manet entered his Olympia in the Salon of 1865, art critics and the Parisian public had a very comfortable perception of the female nude in art.  As history tends to show, people are very afraid of change and cling to the forms of the past.  Only two years earlier in 1863, the same year that Manet painted Olympia, Alexandré Cabanel painted The Birth of Venus, the classic tradition of the female nude.  The tradition of the female nude in art up to 1865 had been a female painted as either a Venus or Danaë.  The goddess Venus, “usually lies peacefully, stretched out on a couch or on the ground, asleep or quietly dreaming, attended by Cupid or handmaidens” (Bareau 43).  Danaë on the other hand is a woman whose story, “focuses on her one moment of glory, when Jupiter visited her in the form of a shower of golden rain” (Bareau 43).  She is usually positioned, “lying on a couch, with her knees drawn up and thighs parted to receive the god, gazing up expectantly” (Bareau 43).  With these two women being the Victorian precedent of Olympia, there is no doubt that the public was shocked when they faced Olympia in 1865 because she was, “not Venus, nor Eve either” (Friedrich 3).  This reaction from the public shows that “the public nakedness of a beautiful woman sometimes becomes a question of politics . . . which actions are permitted under which unspoken and frequently changing rules” (Friedrich 1).  The Parisian public was afraid of the boldness that Olympia represented, not as much in art, as in the society in which they lived.
     Considering that Manet had already entered artwork in the Salon three times before the 1865 Salon, he had a keen sense of the audience for whom he was painting.  In order for his paintings to be accepted to the 1865 Salon, they would be voted on by jurors.  These jurors were wealthy and very influential critics in the Paris art scene.  Brombert makes an interesting note when she states, “the fact that Manet kept Olympia in his studio for two years before deciding to show it suggests that he was uneasy about it” (167).  With Olympia, Manet chose to stray from the Biblical Eve and Venuses “while proclaiming his painting a part of an established tradition through its many references to other paintings of the female nude” (Adler 61).  Adler also notes that “He [Manet] confounded the expectations which critics and members of the public alike brought to the painting” (61).  Sadly though, it was “not until 1897 that a critic first saw any connection between Olympia and Titian’s Venus upon which it had so artfully been modeled” (Freidrich 22).  Manet believed that his audience would recognize the resemblance to Titian’s Venus of Urbino and praise him for taking the female nude to a new level.  Unfortunately, Manet’s modernistic philosophy did not sink in with the public or with the critics who saw Olympia at the 1865 Salon.
    This was the audience that Olympia was presented to in 1865, a public that valued the traditions of the past and was strict about morals of society.  For them, Olympia was personal insult to their morality.  Friedrich notes that “the first reaction of the Parisian press and public was one of hostility, even outrage, along with a certain amount of nervous laughter” (1).  Many believed that “Olympia indicated nothing but his [Manet’s] contempt for the public” (Brombert 167).  It is clear, the reason of the public’s fear, because “She [Olympia] is scandal and idol, power and public presence of Society’s wretched secret . . . Bestial Vestal consecrated to absolute nudity, she makes us think of everything that conceals and preserves primitive barbarity and ritual animality in the customs and practices of urban prostitution” (Brombert 146).
     Even though prostitution was present in society, it was morally wrong to bring it out into the open because it was a shameful practice and one that was feared due to its corruption. Schneider proves this point further by stating, “the Parisians shrieks of outrage ring false in a city where prostitutes were princesses, where a man’s mistress was more likely to be seen in public than his wife, and where a perfume of delicious wickedness pervaded the atmosphere” (71).  Schneider helps show that it was not Olympia’s nakedness that sparked contempt from the crowd, but rather the fact that she was a modern woman, a woman in a profession that was not morally accepted by the society in which she lived.
     Manet painted Olympia in 1863, expecting the painting’s audience, to embrace her beauty and her reality.  He painted Olympia with many similar elements as Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538 and decided to take “a mythological theme and transposed it into the world of his day” (Bataille 63).  According to Hamilton, “Manet was reworking one of the most familiar as well as one of the most conventionally idealized themes of European painting . . . Olympia proclaimed for those who knew anything at all of the past that her ancestresses were the Venetian Venuses of the High Renaissance, in particular Titian’s Venus of Urbino” (67). Manet was attempting to be totally innovative with his Olympia.  Some critics came to Manet’s defense and noted that, “the crude public finds it easier to laugh than to look, understands nothing at all of this art which is too abstract for its intelligence” (Hamilton 77).  These same critics praised Manet’s bold approach to his Olympia by noting that it is “only with Olympia do we reach that moulting time, when painting casts off its old trappings and emerged as a new reality” (Bataille 63).  This specific transition that Manet produced from Titian’s Venus of Urbino and his own Olympia mark the changes that are “the outward signs of the transition from one world to another” (Bataille 64).  Although the majority of the Salon critics and the Parisian public denounced Manet and his work, others were able to make connections about Olympia and praise Manet for his bold step into modernism.
     Besides the critics that praised Manet, the women (the prostitutes) that her represents in Olympia most likely thanked him as well for his bold step.  Since Manet’s Olympia was a representation of a woman that possessed the role of a prostitute, her character was considered an outsider in the Parisian society.  Perhaps it is safe to say that other courtesans of the time were honored to have a world renowned artist paint Olympia, a woman that without a doubt was “a courtesan rather than a deity” (Brombert 145).  But Manet included in Olympia the characteristics of a strong and powerfully independent woman.  Brombert asserts that “her body may be her stock-in-trade, but it is she who has full control over it” (145).  Even if Olympia seemed to glamorize the life of prostitution, this was no reason to degrade the painting as Paul de Saint-Victor did when he called Olympia “art that has sunk so low it is not worthy of our censure” (Bataille 63).  The higher class Parisians that Manet presented Olympia to in 1865 included the wives of the men that visited prostitutes.  Olympia stares them in the face and “the direct gaze of the figure . . . produces an immediacy in the relationship between the figure and the spectator that retains the power to disconcert” (Adler 61).  She demands respectability from her viewers because “although see has been demoted, she knows nothing of the self-conscious shame of Eve” (Friedrich 6).  The Parisian courtesans of this period most likely secretly thanked Manet for his bold interpretation.  Although they took part in a profession that “moral” society preached against, they were nevertheless women and they deserved to be recognized as just that. 
     Taking into consideration that I myself am a woman, a modern woman viewing Manet’s Olympia, I have to admit that Manet makes a bold statement but one that I commend him for.  I do not agree with the profession of prostitution, but it is key to note that the courtesans of Manet’s time were women just like me.  The fact that Manet presents Olympia as naked rather than nude does not offend me as a women of today.  Instead, I feel that it makes Olympia as a woman appear stronger and more in control due to the fact that she directly faces her audience.  She may not be happy in her profession, but she does not deserve degradation from her audience.  Olympia represents a strong women that challenged the female stereotypes in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century.
      Due to the fact that Manet’s Olympia is a deviation from the normal representation of nude women in art around 1865, it is key to explain the reasons that made it different from other works.  According to Friedrich, “Manet’s Olympia was virtually the first painting that made no pretense at disguises . . . everything about her proclaims that she is a modern Parisian” (3).  As noted before, Manet chose to represent Olympia in this modern portrayal due to his philosophy that a painter must paint what he sees.  The meaning behind this Olympia that drove his audience mad, was the fact that, “not only the pose, the interior scene, the motif of the black servant, the black cat on the bed but specifically the bangle on the woman’s wrist obliged the spectator to acknowledge Olympia’s heritage” (Hamilton 67).  All the signs in Manet’s work pointed to the fact that he was representing a modern Venus and she was a prostitute.  This was not what Manet wanted the audience to take away from his painting.  What he wanted them to take away was much, much deeper.  He wanted them to realize that his Olympia stood “as the first nude to represent modern reality” (Brombert 1460.  He was setting a new standard for the art and artists of his time.  Unfortunately, many were too caught up in the subject of Olympia to realize that Manet had accomplished something fantastic and worthy of recognition on not damnation.
    Manet’s Olympia was definitely the source of scandal at the 1865 Salon in Paris.  Yes, the painting included a modern Parisian prostitute in the form of Titian’s Venus of Urbino but what the painting stood for was a stronger statement that its subject.  Bataille sums it up when he states that, “Manet’s contribution was not superior, but radically different” (8). Most likely Manet was ahead of his time with his philosophy and seen as negatively radical.  But Manet was not this at all.  Instead, he chose to follow a path that was all his own and not that of all the other artists that painted the Venuses of the past.  He chose to represent a new Venus and her name was Olympia. 
 

Works Cited

Adler, Kathleen.  Manet. Oxford: Phaidon Press Unlimited, 1986.

Bareau, Judith Wilson.  The Hidden Face of Manet.  London: The Burlington Magazine,
1986.

Bataille, George.  Manet. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 1983.

Brombert, Beth Archer.  Eduoard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat.  New York:  Little,
Brown and Company, 1996.

Friedrich, Otto.  Oylmpia: Paris in the Age of Manet.  New York: HarperCollins
Publishers, Inc., 1992.

Hamilton, George Heard.  Manet and his Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press,
1954.

Hanson, Anne Coffin.  Eduoard Manet 1832 – 1883.  Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum
of Art, 1966. 

Hanson, Anne Coffin.  Manet and the Modern Tradition.  New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1977. 

Schneider, Pierre.  The World of Manet 1832 – 1883.  New York: Time Life Books,
1968.
 


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