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The Legend of Zelda
At a young age, Manet found in his father an extreme opposition to his desired career as an artist. His father was a magistrate who thought that Manet should choose a “recognized” profession. Attempting to appease his father, Manet tried and failed miserably at an attempt to become a mariner. Thus, his father finally gave in and let his son become the student of Thomas Couture. Although Manet had finally gotten his wish to become an artist, he would find that he and his master disagreed on many of the aspects of painting, such as the proper way to use color and shading. After Manet painted his The Absinthe Drinker, considered to be his first real painting, which his master Couture found extremely distasteful, the two men parted ways.
The Absinthe Drinker, Edouard Manet, c. 1859
Arguably, one of his most famous paintings caused the biggest scandal of the nineteenth century painting community. Olympia was first shown at the Salon of 1865. Although it now hangs with famous impressionist and post-impressionist artworks, being well-loved by the public and well-received by art critics and historians, the crowds who gathered around it at the Salon mostly found it immensely distasteful, considering the piece an “…offense to public morality.”
Olympia, Edouard Manet, 1863
Although many have offered opinions as to why Olympia was virtually universally condemned by the public, it seems there were a variety of reasons. First and foremost, people of the time considered Olympia an extremely off-putting piece due to the obvious immorality of the subject matter. There are a number of details pointing toward the conclusion that the woman painted in Olympia is a wealthy prostitute, or courtesan. Many of her adornments symbolize wealth and sensuality, including the orchid in her hair, her pearl bracelet and the slipper casually dangling from her foot. Even the title of the work is something that pointed to the woman’s profession, “Olympia” being slang for “prostitute.” There are also more discreet reasons that people found Olympia offensive. It was not merely the nudity of this reclined woman that offended people, but also her posture, which dominates the viewer and portrays her as confident and in charge, as well as her expression and the way she boldly accepts her nudity and makes eye contact with the viewer.
It was not uncommon for Manet to reference art history in his paintings, as he did with his Luncheon on the Grass. With Olympia he references two classical female nudes: Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. Although the paintings have virtually the same general composition, they differ greatly where it counts - the details. Where the Venus in Venus of Urbino is timidly casting her gaze upon the viewer, her hand sensually covering herself while also gesturing toward her genitalia, Olympia assaults her viewer with her sharp gaze, sitting up rigidly as she ignores the gift being offered to her by her servant. One direct quotation from Titian's Venus of Urbino is where a cat stands at the foot of the bed. In the Venus of Urbino, a small dog occupies a similar position, which is intended to represent fidelity and obedience. In Olympia, the cat is a blunt contradiction to the dog, symbolizing free will, and sexual independence.
Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538 Sleeping Venus, Giorgione, c. 1510
Critics of Manet’s Olympia, including Claretie and Gautier wrote harshly of the style in which Manet painted the courtesan, even as friends of Manet such as Zola defended it upon the same aspects which others criticized. Once more in comparison to the Venus of Urbino, which has very vibrant colors and smooth painting quality, Olympia’s colors are dulled down and the shapes are surrounded by harsh outlines. This was not the first time Manet had used such a technique, as a similar style of coloration and shading was used in even his very early works such as The Absinthe Drinker. It was said to look unfinished by many critics, who were used to fully fleshed-out and smoothly-shaded figure paintings.
Despite this, it and many of the other paintings by Manet were important in that they helped not only to build the foundations for the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles, but they were some of the first of what has become a long-standing tradition of art being the subject of intense controversy and public outrage, for better or for worse. This way of responding to art, though perceived to be a negative thing, paved the way for art to eventually become a form of social commentary and criticism, and even a force for change in society.
Coffin Hanson, Anne. Manet and the Modern Tradition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Perruchot, Henri. Édouard Manet, New York: Barns & Noble, Inc., 1962.
Rand, Harry. Manet’s Contemplations at the Gare Saint-Lazare, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987.
Reff, Theodore. Manet: Olympia, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1976.