My Daily Art Display today continues with the life of Édouard Manet. Yesterday we had reached 1864 the year when he exhibited his work entitled The Dead Christ with Angels at the Paris Salon and for which he was heavily criticised. So did Manet, after the criticism and ridicule of his 1864 painting, submit a less contentious work the following season in 1865? The answer is simply a resounding NO. He entered two paintings into the 1865 Salon and in fact one of the paintings entitled Olympia, was one he had completed two years earlier and it was this one which caused an even greater furore with both the public and critics alike. The fact that Manet had completed the painting two years earlier but had not exhibited it makes one wonder whether Manet himself had doubts about the wisdom of launching such a contentious painting on the Parisian public. His concern was well founded as it was considered the most shocking of all the works exhibited that year. Olympia by Manet is My Daily Art Display featured painting today.
Before us we see an almost nude woman lying on a bed with a pink orchid tucked behind her left ear. At the end of the bed, by the naked woman’s feet, we can just make out a small black cat. In fact the inclusion of the small furry animal often had people naming the painting, Venus with a Cat. The model for the painting was Victorine Meurent. Victorine was also, besides being a famous model for painters, an artist in her own right and one who exhibited a number of works at the prestigious Paris Salon. Ironically in 1876, one of her paintings was included in the Salon’s juried exhibition (exhibitions at which the works of art are only displayed if selected by a jury) and the painting which Manet put forward for selection was rejected.
The subject of the oil on canvas painting caused a sensation. So what shocked the critics? Was it the nudity? If that was the case, then why, as surely paintings of nudes were quite common at that time. The problem was not the nudity but the fact that the critics believed the naked woman that Manet had depicted could be identified as a demi-mondaine. These were ladies who had a reputation of enjoying an extravagant lifestyle of fine food and clothes, all of which had been achieved because of the steady income they made in cash and gifts from their various lovers. In other words she was identified as a high-class prostitute and the Parisian public was very uncomfortable with the scale of prostitution in their city.
There can be no doubt that Manet’s inspiration for this painting came from Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Giorgione’s Sleeping (Dresden) Venus (see My Daily Art Display for Feb 15th). Maybe Manet wanted to update and be more innovative with his “Olympia”. Not all critics condemned his effort. A few praised him for his “bold step into modernism”. However there are differences in the way Manet has portrayed his woman in comparison with Titian’s Venus and it is these differences which led to the outcry.
The contention that Manet’s woman was merely a high class prostitute was brought about by the way she wore an orchid in her hair, her pearl earrings, her bracelet, and her expensive oriental shawl on which her body rests, all of which gave rise to the belief that her wealth was gained from the “service” she offered her lovers. Her skin is bright white in colour and there is a severe shift from light to shadow in this painting. Look how she stares towards us with her black eyes. This is not a demure gaze. It is a challenging, contemptuous and provoking look, in some ways daring us to find fault with her appearance. Her hand is placed over her vulva and in a way she is saying that this is only to be had by the men she chooses. It is in some way a signal that she will choose who she will bed. Around her neck she wears a narrow black ribbon which when contrasted with the paleness of her neck adds sensuality to her pose. Her upswept hair held in place by the orchid adds to the eroticism. Her slipper is half on and half off her foot in a slovenly fashion.
Her black servant, Laure, stands by her side. She is attired in the typical fashion servants of a courtesan would dress. She is holding a bouquet of flowers which the naked woman seems to ignore. They are probably a gift from a lover who may have just arrived. Maybe her eyes are not on us but on the door through which her lover is about to emerge.
As I said earlier we have the strange black cat sitting on the end of the bed. In Titian’s Venus of Urbino he had included a dog which symbolized fidelity and added a kind of gentility to the scene. Manet would have none of this sentimentality and added his black cat which because of its habits was taken as a symbol of laziness, lust and prostitution. A coincidence? Or did Manet know exactly what he was doing when he include the animal in his painting?
The painting when exhibited was one which the observer either loved or hated. There were no half-measures. The painting could not be ignored. The critics labeled it immoral and vulgar and his friend Antonin Beaudelaire commented that the picture had created such anger that it was in danger of being destroyed by an over-zealous and offended observer. In 1890 the French government acquired the painting with a public subscription, which had been organized by Claude Monet, and it now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
I will let you decide whether what you see before you is Venus, an old-style Titian-like goddess or a nineteenth century Venus whose name was Olympia. Maybe you prefer to simply believe Manet has depicted a high class prostitute awaiting her next client but whatever you decide I think you will agree that it is a fine work of art.