The Scandalous Painting That Helped Create Modern Art: An Introduction to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

Here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, only the most shel­tered among us could be shocked by the sight of a naked body. It would seem that the whole of human his­to­ry has at least that in com­mon with us: only cer­tain soci­eties at cer­tain times have con­sid­ered nudi­ty a force worth sup­press­ing. But then, has the prob­lem ever been nudi­ty in gen­er­al, or rather the con­text, the nature, and the impli­ca­tions of par­tic­u­lar instances of nudi­ty? It’s fair to say that Titian’s Venus of Urbino has scan­dal­ized prac­ti­cal­ly no one. Yet three cen­turies lat­er, Édouard Manet’s out­ward­ly sim­i­lar 1865 can­vas Olympia sent shock­waves through the Paris art world. Why?

The rules of the Paris Acad­e­my of Fine Arts at the time dic­tat­ed that “great art was sup­posed to con­vey a moral or intel­lec­tu­al mes­sage,” says the nar­ra­tor of Vox’s video essay on Olympia above. “All accept­able art fell into one of five cat­e­gories, ranked by their capac­i­ty to deliv­er those mes­sages.” The less­er of these were still lifes and land­scapes, in the mid­dle fell genre paint­ings, and the great­est were por­traits and his­tor­i­cal works. And “equal­ly impor­tant to what was paint­ed was how it was paint­ed,” with more points going to “idol­ized, pret­ti­fied visions of the world, smooth and beau­ti­ful with no body hair and flaw­less skin,” all paint­ed in a way “that fol­low the rules of depth and per­spec­tive, mean­ing it looks like it could exist in the real world.”

The Acad­e­my of Fine Arts would pay lit­tle regard, then, to the “stark and unnat­ur­al col­ors” of Olympia, its “rough and tex­tured” brush­strokes, and its much “flat­ter and less com­plex” look than the Renais­sance real­ism idol­ized in those days. That Manet would dare give his obvi­ous “homage” to the Venus of Urbino a title like Olympia, a com­mon nom de guerre for pros­ti­tutes in 19th-cen­tu­ry Paris, caused some seri­ous­ly ruf­fled feath­ers as well. So why did the Acad­e­my put Manet’s paint­ing on dis­play in the first place? “It prob­a­bly had some­thing to do with his grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty. You can see his influ­ence so clear­ly in what came next. He led the charge towards Mod­ernism in the late 1800s, start­ing with the Impres­sion­ists — Mon­et, Degas — who adopt­ed his pen­chant for mod­ern themes and lucent brush­strokes.”

A more 20th-cen­tu­ry read­ing of Olympia holds up the paint­ing as proof that “no one enti­ty gets to decide what art should look like.” An episode of the ArtCu­ri­ous pod­cast about Olympia goes fur­ther still, claim­ing for Manet’s sub­ject the sta­tus of a fem­i­nist icon. But even the paint­ing’s con­tem­po­rary detrac­tors saw some­thing impor­tant in it. Émile Zola at first seemed to dis­miss the work by writ­ing, “You want­ed a nude, and you chose Olympia, the first that came along.” But he also admit­ted that Olympia cap­tured some­thing more gen­uine than even the most glo­ri­ous­ly real­is­tic paint­ings could: “When our artists give us Venus­es, they cor­rect nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked him­self why lie, why not tell the truth; he intro­duced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the side­walks.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Édouard Manet Illus­trates Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, in a French Edi­tion Trans­lat­ed by Stephane Mal­lar­mé (1875)

A Quick Six Minute Jour­ney Through Mod­ern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Paint­ing, “The Lun­cheon on the Grass,” to Jack­son Pol­lock 1950s Drip Paint­ings

The Most Dis­turb­ing Paint­ing: A Close Look at Fran­cis­co Goya’s “Sat­urn Devour­ing His Son”

Van Gogh’s Ugli­est Mas­ter­piece: A Break Down of His Late, Great Paint­ing, The Night Café (1888)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Terry Walsh says:

    Manet was being provoca­tive, no more, no less, in chal­leng­ing and offend­ing con­tem­po­rary mid­dle-class moeurs s well as those of the Paris Acad­e­my. The paint­ing’s obvi­ous ref­er­ence to the Venus of Urbino is the delib­er­ate start-point for this.

    How­ev­er, as a paint­ing of high qual­i­ty, it seems less suc­cess­ful, at first glance; Olympia’s bel­ly and thighs, as well as her left arm, appear crude­ly drawn, while her left hand is demon­stra­bly larg­er than her right. Manet is a great painter, so this may well have been delib­er­ate.

    ‘A more 20th-cen­tu­ry read­ing of Olympia’… what makes one read­ing ‘more 20th cen­tu­ry’ than oth­er, I won­der!

  • Masud Hossain says:

    Paris sent a shock­wave through Art World. Why? This is because I think Venus and Olympia are sketch­es. But in my eyes there are two types, one artis­tic and one real­is­tic.

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