Manet’s Olympia: Commentaries Over Time

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Manet’s Olympia: Commentaries Over Time


Emireth Herrera Valdés

(C) Fashion Fanzine ISSN 2397 2580 – April 2020

Art historians, scholars, art critics, and museum curators often present multiple narratives within a time and framework in order to convey a message; even the viewer’s personal background and knowledge are determinant while looking at the painting. Overall, Olympia is considered the modern painting due to its aesthetic, subject matter, and technique. The technical experimentation provides the shapes and forms a certain air of liquidity and uncertainty. This optical experience makes it the first Impressionist painting. Edouard Manet created it with sincerity and frankness as Michael Fried says.  However, the painting itself hides and reveals multiple cultural and artistic codes that can be discussed repeatedly. This paper will consider how authors and critics responded to the painting and how that contextualizes both its period and our interpretations of it today.

This essay presents how art critics and scholars have discussed Olympia from different approaches and focus on elements that relevant to their time and particular ideology. By introducing authors in a chronological narrative, all of whom wrote about the same work, one can parse their cultural context. Starting with Theodore Reff and his publication Manet: Olympia, (1976) one identifies a pure formalist focus and art historical reconstruction of people’s mentality from the 1860s. In 1996, Michael Fried reconsidered Reff’s argument from a socio-political perspective that situates the viewer as a beholder. To continue the discussion, Marxist art historian T.J. Clark in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1985) states an unprecedented analysis of Parisian society under a bourgeois capitalist ideology and class struggle. A more recent progression in the literature moves beyond the courtesan as just a symbol of Parisian identity, and considers other significant questions about race, ethnicity, and gender.   Sander Gilman’s 1985 essay illuminates the presence of the black woman in Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth- Century Art, Medicine, and Literature. The author approaches the discussion based on scientific evidence and cultural stereotypes. Later, Griselda Pollock in Vision and Difference Feminism, Femininity and the Histories of Art published in 1988, emphasizes the necessity to look at Olympia through the eyes of a modern woman who was part of the social production. Finally, cultural colonialism and racial concerns emerge from a socio-cultural approach through the work of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby in Still Thinking about Olympia’s Maid, 2015. 

Looking at this progression allows us to learn the position of the viewer in relation to an artwork. While the artwork is static, society is in constant transformation. Olympia exemplifies the myth behind the work and the myths to be resolved.

Edouard Manet and Olympia 

Edouard Manet was a French painter born January 23, 1832 in Paris. He belonged to a high bourgeois family who hoped he would be a lawyer. However, in 1850 he entered the studio of Tomas Couture (b. 1815), who had studied with Jacques-Louis David. This artistic background would be relevant in the development of Manet’s own school of painting. After six years of study with Couture he traveled extensively, visiting European museums. His charm and generosity led to his inclusion in “a circle of friends that spanned the worlds of art, literature, journalism, and theater.” In 1863 he married his piano teacher Suzanne Leenhoff (1829-1906).  His marriage and the fact that the couple moved into his mother’s apartment, became an aspect of his personal life that predominated in his appreciation of modern urban life, particularly in the realm of fashion. Fashion was a significant element in Manet’s paintings; according to Manet and Modern Beauty, such influences emerged while living in the family apartment where “he may have borrowed or had on hand different fabrics and fashion accessories, like the hats that appear on several sitters.” Therefore, every fashion detail was significant not only to embellish the painting but also to imbue significance. 

Manet is well known as one of the most controversial modern painters. Despite his effort and immense enthusiasm to be part of the Paris Salon, he was constantly rejected by the jury during the 1860s. Nevertheless, he managed to show paintings such as  Luncheon on the Grass at the Salon des Refusés in 1863.  Manet’s recognition began after the Impressionist movement was official in 1874. Unfortunately, his health problems did not allow him to enjoy his commercial success.

Manet completed Olympia in 1863 and exhibited it for the first time at the Salon in 1865 along with The Christ Mocked (1865) (see fig.2). Olympia is one of the most controversial paintings of the nineteenth century and it continues to provoke reactions from its audience. According to Georges Bataille the painting was, “the first masterpiece before which the crowd fairly lost all control of itself.” Olympia  caused a scandal, as its viewers considered the work problematic for two main reasons: its technique and the subject matter. This painting demonstrates the difficulty of describing the “modern painting” in verbal language 

Olympia (see fig.1) is a depiction of a nude figure accompanied by her clothed African maid, who holds a bouquet of flowers. A black cat stands at the end of the couch, defensively posed. To emphasize the nakedness of the model, Manet created a contrast by dressing the black woman with a pale pink French dress. The nude female figure reclines on top of a couch draped with a Spanish shawl while she covers her private area with one hand. She is adorned with a pink orchid in her red hair, a black ribbon tied around her neck, pearl earrings, and a golden bracelet with an attached pendant on her right arm. These accessories are symbols of wealth and sensuality. The painting presents several contrasting elements, such as the blackness of the maid in juxtaposition to the pale skin of the nude figure. The emerald-colored curtains and brown patterned wallpaper of the background contrast the rumpled ivory-colored bed sheets. The most striking quality of Olympia is the fixated gaze of the naked woman who confronts her viewers.

Olympia’s Scandal–Theodore Reff

In 1976 Olympia is analyzed by the American scholar Theodore Reff’s in Manet: Olympia. The author argues that the critical commentary on Manet’s work represented the mentality of his audience, one that was based on moral values in contrast with the content of the picture. The viewers’ aggressive reactions  instigated the  general idea of the scandal around Olympia, mainly because it was a painting of a naked courtesan who stares out at  her audience.

According to Reff, “Olympia reigns over the famous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures around it with the authority of a venerated icon. At that time, it provoked a hostility without precedent even in the troubled history of nineteenth-century art.”  Through a historical approach, Reff analyses the “intrinsic aesthetic” qualities of Olympia. However, these notions comment on moral values from a male perspective. For example, one of the first reactions came from the caricaturists who made drawings of Olympia exaggerating the model’s stiffness and slim proportions; the maid with a rare smile indicating sensuality and the cat had a diabolical expression. The animal was often drawn with an “inky silhouette” emphasizing its “tail unmistakably phallic,” as in Gill’s 1868 caricature. (see fig.3) Additionally, Reff introduces a question posed by Charles Baudelaire who stated, “A cat? Is this really a cat?” This statement refers to the cat’s shape as a phallic representation. Critics repeatedly pose the same question about better understanding the significance of this black cat. The presence of the black cat and the African woman was often a metaphor of dirt and sex thus prostitution. That meant a negative imaginary of venal sexuality. Later modern art historians presented other instances in works of art that depict similar subjects, such as in Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s The Skate, 1725-1726. (see fig.4) Chardin was a major influence on Manet, especially in the creation of many of Manet’s  still lifes such as Basket of Fruit (1864), The Brioche (1870). Due to Reff’s fixation on the nudity of the female figure, he did not consider Chardin’s work, despite the phallic references Manet shared with Chardin. 

The viewer can detect the woman’s defiant gaze and the bristly black cat’s eyes, who appears bothered by the presence of an unseen stranger. Although this individual is not physically depicted in the scene, the reaction of the cat leads us to believe that this individual might be located behind the emerald curtain. However, the cat looks out towards the viewer, another sign of his perturbation by the presence of the viewer. But it is the gaze of the nude woman which forces the spectator to assume they are in the same room.Olympia is confronting a male viewer. 

Moral values were exposed on a public stage where the sexualized courtesan scandalized the bourgeoisie class. While Reff credited the lent importance of details, Carol Armstrong reconsidered the scandal of Olympia by paying attention to the bouquet of flowers. She asserts the possibility that these flowers were in fact delivered and received by the African woman holding the bouquet. In this approach, the maid is the benefactor and admirer of Olympia. Armstrong further stated, “And whether he attended to it or not, that bouquet brought the viewer (implicitly a “he”) into the picture, implicating him in the interchange between the sender and receiver of the floral gift and opening up an equivalent exchange between him and the naked woman gazing out at him from the paintings interior space.” Manet created Olympia with the intention that it would one day be received and viewed by a male viewer. Olympia seduces the client with her gaze, taking him into her own interior space where she is in control of the event. This sexual exchange, between the sender of the bouquet and Olympia, is one that often occurred between courtesans and their suitors.  

By comparing Manet’s Olympia with Titian’s Venus of Urbino (see fig.5), Reff argues that, “Olympia was a modern counterpart to Venus, a goddess enthroned to receive a different kind of homage in a society with different values. But it was above all in the nude figure itself that he succeeded in doing this.” However, Reff points out that Venus of Urbino represents “the classical goddess of love, ” and offers details such as a bouquet of roses on the right hand, the lap-dog and the background indicates a scene of “domestic love.” In Olympia, Manet substituted the lap-dog for the bristling black cat, which causes the viewer to question, who is Olympia? Is it the cat, or perhaps the African maid, or is it the nude figure? This question was addressed in 1999 by the feminist Eunice Lipton in Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire. The author revealed the identity of Olympia: Victorine Meurent, a lesbian artist who had the misfortune to live in a male-dominated world. Aware of her immense beauty and due to her modest social class, Meurent immediately agreed to model for Manet. Considering she is also depicted in other works by Manet, Meurent became one of his favorite models.

Ultimately, based on Reff’s scholarship Olympia’s flatness resulted from Manet’s experimentation with pure lines, dark contours, and contrasting tones. Although, critics viewed the painting as unfinished, it was an attempt to depict reality in a method inspired by Japanese color woodcuts. Manet’s flatness has been interpreted by many scholars and art historians until the present day. Some of the painting’s codes can be deciphered by looking at Old Masters’ works, but scholarship evolves when society offers different viewpoints. For example, Olympia’s modernity is related to the courtesan’s role in society. Based on literary sources, Reff revealed flowers as representative of modern Parisian life, the location of the very streets, cafés, and social circles that Manet inhabited. Decades later, Armstrong published extensive research on the flowers, letters, and fashion of Manet’s time. Throughout his career, Manet challenged conventions in order to deliver codes that can be interpreted from different points of view in different periods. 

Flatness and purity of absorption by Michael Fried 

The American scholar Michael Fried was educated in the United States and England. He retook formalist ideas to another stage and focused on the viewer’s experience. The author, in Manet’s Modernism: Or The Face of Painting in the 1860s published in 1996, reconsiders his own earlier publication from 1969 Manet’s Sources Manet’s Sources: Aspects of His Art, 1859–1869, where he discussed Reff’s emphasis on Old Masters’s influences and his limited interpretation. Fried argues that historical attributions were a strategy to secure his work’s “Frenchness.” This means Manet had a strong desire to be part of high society as an active participant of the modern life lived by the artists Manet admired, and from whom he borrowed key elements. Nevertheless, there is definitely a socio-political approach to be understood where the capitalist bourgeoisie plays a central role.

Fried contradicts Reff’s argument regarding Manet’s interest in the art of the past as a tool to achieve form and color, and as a source to compose his own themes. For Fried, Manet’s interest went beyond the form. In 1954, Meyer Schapiro stated that Manet’s subject matter was the modern life “not simply because they were at hand or because they furnished a particular coloring or light, but rather because they were his world in an overt or symbolic sense and related intimately to his person or outlook.” Indeed, Manet used the art of the past as a reference but more importantly, he appropriated elements of past art to create his own composition by experimenting with the technique. By saying that Manet’s subject matter emerged from his world, we could understand how Clement Greenberg defines Modernism (with capital M) as a process which conveys self-criticism. As a matter of fact, Manet’s pictorial value is found in two different levels, the act of looking as a way to engage with the painting, instead of mere “contemplation” and the exprience. In this sense Paris, was a city of human relations and in constant transformation. Olympia established a direct connection with its viewers. Moreover, the value of the modern painting involved the participation of the viewer.  According to Fried, “The representation of absorption carried with it the implication that the figure or figures in question were wholly unaware of the presence before the canvas of the beholder.” Indeed, Manet orchestrated the scene to provoke this experience. For Fried, the figures in The Old Musician (1862) (see fig.6) are aware of the presence of the viewer, and the violinist is the only figure that “gazes directly out of the picture as if to meet our gaze head on.” Such effect suggests that the figures “might be beheld,” generating the viewer’s experience. This quality is also present in Olympia, in which not only the naked woman is looking at the viewer but also the cat. Another effect on the technical aspect is the silhouette of the young woman that confirms the forward facing of the painting as a whole. This pictorial experience is provocative in relation to the aesthetic quality “It aims to strike the beholder forcibly as soon as it is beheld,” which means that the antitheatrical narrative provokes seeing the painting as a whole. What Fried called an “antitheatrical device” became an instrument to connect the content of the painting with the viewer, while at the same time its formal elements established connections with French elements.

For Fried, the purity of Manet’s art derived from self-definition and self-criticism; while the flatness of the painting is related to its two-dimensional condition. Whereas Baudelaire’s poems such as Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) and Parfum exotique (Exotic Perfume), testified the nature of life, Manet depicted a metaphor of “dehumanized and dehumanizing aspects of life under commodity of capitalism.” The black contour of the figures and the “flatness” itself was a way to represent the misconfiguration of reality. However, Fried agreed with T.J. Clark’s definition of modernism in The Painting of Modern Life, where “virtual distance is equated with a loss of certainty about the very act of representation.” In these words: “Flatness was therefore in play—as an irreducible, technical fact of painting— with all of these totalization, all of these attempts to make it a metaphor.” During the 1860s Manet marked the beginning of “purely optical experience.” The sense of flatness as Armand Silvestre said, made the viewer feel the necessity of “special eyes to be sensitive to that accuracy in the relation of tones that is their honor and their merit.” Manet continued perfecting his technique in his later painting Manet’s Young Lady (1866), modeled again by Victorine Meurent. He used the same pink tones and contrasting colors, quite similar to the African maid’s dress. The “sketchy” paint application and the blurred contour illuminates the pale salmon-colored silk and the pale skin of the woman. This technical experimentation results in a translucent silhouette. 

Olympia, a Social Alienation according to T.J. Clark

The British scholar T.J. Clark examined modern paintings from a socio-political context of the capitalist bourgeoisie. As a Marxist-oriented art historian he published The Painting of Modern Life in 1981, whose message according to Beatrice Farwell was “that in the era of high capitalism, Europe got the art it deserved.” For Farwell, post-modernist culture is redefined by the analysis of modern art under the framework of new ideas and the use of different theories. Clark interpreted Olympia in terms of “class struggle.” Style in high art—as Fried mentioned—was related to social class, and as a consequence it involved the artist’s perception of the audience’s reaction. Although Farwell expresses the difficulty of reading Clark’s essays, she recognizes the author as the “first systematically to challenge the absolute quality and value of modernist art, on the grounds that it presents stylistic characteristics that he finds determined by the worst aspects of bourgeois capitalist ideology.” The capitalist dynamic is widely expressed in Manet’s subject matter, aesthetic elements and technique.  

Clark’s essay Olympia´s Choice begins by introducing the definition of a prostitute as “only that woman who publicly and without love, gives herself to the first comer for a pecuniary remuneration.” However, during the 1860s Paris’s transformation had a significant impact on social relations, resulting in sexually transmitted diseases. Courtesans appeared as free women who struggled to raise their socio-economic status, and at the same time were conscious of their monetary value. “Prostitution is a sensitive subject for bourgeois society because sexuality and money are mixed up in it.” Thus their presence in society was notable and modern painters such as Manet depicted them as an expression of modernity. Therefore, social order became blurred and Manet’s technique was manifesting those social shifts. For Clark “modernism” was a condition of society and resulted in forms of “spectacle.” What else made Olympia different to other nudes? The courtesan entered the Salon without any disguise, instead she confronted the audience with her gaze as a representation of a sexual economical transaction. The nakedness of the woman revealed that she was a proletarian, who knew and chose to be a courtesan in order to raise her social status. For Clark that was part of the spectacle the “flatness of pictorial space, and the inadequate or ambiguous representation of social class.” Manet used the painting to represent social dynamics and class struggle. Ultimately, flatness was a criticism of society and its emotional flatness. Olympia was a metaphor of the city’s distance.

Clark’s analysis views Paris’s Haussmannization projects as a consequence of urban changes due to the political situation. The author states that Haussmannization was the main reason for the city’s perversion which brought health issues, prostitution and social alienation. “The baron’s demolitions had laid waste some famous streets of brothels near the Louvre and on the Ile de la Cite; the general rise in rents had obliged the owners of some brothels to move them out to the periphery, and many more to convert their establishments into hotels garnis at the disposal of the individual streetwalker.” The new city’s shape forced prostitutes to find clients in the streets and in other public places were men entertained. These women were low-class workers whose necessity to live made them visible. However, the courtesan was of a higher class–a beautiful, more refined woman who was integrated into the bourgeoisie class. Her fashionable accessories, garments and cultural knowledge distinguished her from prostitutes. More importantly, freedom and independence made her a modern Parisian woman. 

Race and Gender 

For decades scholars focused their attention on Olympia, the naked courtesan while neglecting feminist and racial considerations. Clark, Fried, and Armstrong all discussed Olympia while overlooking the presence of her black maid. However, this research set up the basis for other scholars to ask more questions about Olympia, which since the late 80s and 90s has aimed at incorporating feminist and racial theory.

In 1988, the South African Griselda Pollock examines Olympia and responds Clark’s publication from her feminist posture. In Vision and Difference Feminism, Femininity and the Histories of Art published, she responded to Clark’s radical Marxist-oriented research by asking: Were there any women artists? and “Why has it been necessary for art history to create an image of the history of past art as an exclusive record of masculine achievement?” It is obvious that a male dominated art world from the 1860s had not changed much by the 1970s or the 1980s.  Olympia is finally approached through the gaze of a woman. For instance, Pollock says: “[T]here is a historical asymmetry–a difference socially, economically, subjectively between being a woman and being a man in Paris in the late nineteenth century” It seems ironic that the model Victorine Meurent, was a vivid reflection of such a statement. She was indeed an artist, who had little success due to her lower class and the limited opportunities she had among male artists.

Turning the attention to the other woman in the painting, the question would be: Who was the black maid? The African model in Olympia was Laure, whose identity is unknown. Through Reff’s scholarship we know that Baudelaire dedicated poems to his black mistresses and lovers, this fact could have been one of Manet’s inspirations. The American scholar Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby approached Olympia from her expertise in the history of art and material culture. In Still Thinking about Olympia’s Maid, she brings up another source: Manet’s 1849 trip to Brazil during his youth. Although, the trip’s purpose was to make him eligible for a second opportunity naval exam, he made drawings of the officers and took time to observe the Brazilian people. As a young critical thinker, he was surprised by the social dynamics of Brazil, especially those between white and black people where slavery was a condition of power and submission. Additionally, he wrote: “Negresses are for the most part nude to the waist; some have a scarf attached to their neck and falling to their chest; they are generally ugly [laides], but I have seen some who are somewhat pretty” This observation stresses the decision of presenting Laure fully clothed and the particular attention to her dress, completely opposite to his description about Brazilian black women. He also wrote: “Some make turbans, the others very artistically arrange their curly hair and almost all wear skirts adorned with monstrous flying petticoats” The depiction of the turban not only accentuates the gaze of the maid, but also frames the features of the woman in juxtaposition with the coral earring and the round white neck of the dress. It remarks on the voluptuousness of this woman against Olympia’s complexion. 

In 1985 the American scholar Sander Gilman, published Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth- Century Art, Medicine, and Literature. He offered different discussion about physical differences and stereotypes between black and white people. The question “How do we organize our perceptions of the world?” Immediately captivates the reader leading him or her to think of stereotypes and iconography. From a scientific and cultural point of view Gilman points out physical differences in women’s genitalia and buttocks in relation with sexual desire and appetite. Grimaldo criticized Gilman’s arguments (generally accepted), which showed a fetishized male mentality about black women. To stress male scholars’ similar posture Grimaldo compares both authors saying: “If Clark in 1985 suffered from an ideological blind sport that left the maid in Manet’s Olympia invisible, Gilman the same year spotlighted the black female body as a naked specimen that linked her to Saartjue Baartmann, the Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as the Venus Hottentoth.” Grimaldo makes clear there are two issues: gender and race. On one hand we have a maid who is a proletarian woman, on the other hand she is black. Thus, she is a “newly enfranchised” black woman who became part of a capitalist circuit. 

Nevertheless, Olympia is still open to reinterpretations. The presence of the black woman represents the desire and attraction for the other. By focusing on her accessories, we can infer that European colonization over African lands is part of their modernization in terms of cultural and artistic inspiration. Black models, French stylish garments, and coral earrings are symbols of commercial trade and status. Manet was conscious of Paris’s different imaginary to the one he had experienced in Brazil. The European’s inherent desire to explore and dominate the unknown was also represented in this modern painting. 

Pollock attended to discuss the missing points that previous art critics had missed: gender and race as a feminist art historian. In her publication Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Writing of Art’s Histories (1999), She concludes that “painting is an anti-Orientalist or de-Orientalising work.” According to Grimaldo this recognition places the figure of Laure as a model is productive, however, “her emphasis on the counter point of Orientalism diminishes the relative import of France’s actual colonial history” Rejecting Pollock’s assumption on Oriental fantasy, Grimaldo considers the black maid’s modernity was related to colonization and slavery abolition.

Grimaldo’s argument highlights the “blind spot” afflicting previous scholars. She highlights the key point when she says “I am testing how productive it is to see Olympia as staging a Creole scene that made visible France’s former colonial reliance on slavery, as well as its recent enfranchisement of its colonies’ slaves and redefinition of all black persons as paid workers.” In this sense she reconsiders Clark’s argument about working class and notes the social, economic and political post-revolutionary effect of colonization in France as a colonizer.

Darcy notes how the figure of Laure represents the end of slavery from 1848. Black people owned their bodies and labor; thus, they were part of a lower social class. Differences between white and black people were evident, and Darcy agrees with Gilman in terms of stereotypes about sexual anxieties, but questions “How does thinking about the entry of blacks into the economy of wage labor after 1848 differently illuminate Manet’s painting?” Manet painted Olympia fifteen years after slavery abolition. Despite Laure’s freedom she was marked by slavery. Her precarious living conditions were probably similar to Meurant’s, since they both had to work as Manet’s models. Ultimately, Grimaldo highlights Laure’s address through Manet’s note: “Laure, very beautiful negress, rue Vintmille, 11, 3rd floor.” and allow us to imagine how she opened her front door and saw The Debtors Prison across the street, a frightening scene that allows the reader to have a different urban perspective than Clark’s Haussmannization analysis.

Manet’s Olympia exemplifies how a work of art endures transformations of significance over the course of time. We are reminded of the necessity of examining the past and its many contexts, and their utility in reinterpreting and understanding the present. Olympia challenged audience and critics alike when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865; as the first modernist painting, early critics focused on the nudity and gaze of the model–a gaze that confronted the audience. Her bold, unexpected pose drew the spectator into the work. The nude subject’s self-confident expression and the mysterious elements of the work; Manet’s technique; and the polemical reactions of critics and audiences contribute to the enduring intrigue of Olympia. The painting has held the attention of critics for decades. The critical reception of the painting has given us a viewpoint of how art critics are influenced by their own time and society, while opening up the layers of history through their interpretations. The outrage caused at the time of release its release makes studying Olympia especially interesting. It is a work of art that communicates across socio-temporal epochs.

Artists such as Edouard Manet are the vehicle that depicts reality and its social intersections. Ultimately, by looking at the progression of different authors’ interpretations over time we conclude that Manet comprehended the social dynamics of a post-revolutionary and post-colonial world. 

Édouard Manet, Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, 1865. Oil on canvas, 74 7/8 × 58 3/8 in. (190.8 × 148.3 cm)
Cham, Olympia in Charivari, 1865. Caricature.
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, The Skate, 1725-1726, oil on canvas. 45.08 x 57.48in (114.5cm x 146cm)
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1534, oil on canvas. 47in x 65in (119cm x 165cm)