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Olympia: Manet's Biggest Scandal

Wed Apr 23, 2014, 11:00 AM

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), a French painter who is sometimes considered one of the founders of the style of impressionism, caused quite a few scandals throughout his career.

Many of these scandals came into being because of the subject matter which he chose to portray in his paintings. Additionally, there were many critics who found fault in his painting style. Surprisingly, despite the sometimes violent reactions to his works, what Manet was really seeking throughout his painting career was official recognition as a great artist of his time. 

    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

Manet would continue to evoke feelings of hostility in his viewers throughout his career.

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.

Manet turned the idea of the traditional female nude on it's head.

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.

Olympia obtained enormous disapproval when it was originally shown.

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.

Works Cited
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.


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Peter-The-Knotter 5 days ago  Student Artisan Crafter
My Corot article should be ready by 23rd... do I post when finished or wait for date? Peter.
(1 Reply)
Peter-The-Knotter Apr 10, 2014  Student Artisan Crafter
HI ,
My name is Jackie , Peter has asked me to put a note on here to say unfortunately he is presently in hospital but is OK and will be discharged soon. Just to let people know that he will be submitting 3 articles (as agreed) by the 23rd April, subjects will be:
- knots (2)
- cards (history of)
- J B Corot
Jackie Tonks
(2 Replies)
I want to thank DistortedSmile for inviting me to this group
Heart Love Heart 
Thank you so much :iconcocoloveplz:

(But truthfully I'm totally inactive in groups recently) .. So I'll try to join soon :aww:
Peter-The-Knotter Jan 24, 2014  Student Artisan Crafter

Hi people!


Firstly: Nice front end people!  haven't looked for a while due to busyness... lots of action, lots of signposts and links! bravo!


OK, now, why I'm really visiting: Three items:


1: Please let me know if there is anything you disagree with or prefer kept out of the journal feature on this project that I have included with my current journal update. Also, is there anything you wish included/added?  I know I should probably have checked with you first but I'm sure there's nothing that would go against the aims or protocols of this group... ?


2: am working on part 2 of the knotting for the next time slice plus my article on Khayyam is ready for that same slice as you know. Will send stash url for pt 2 of knots asap..


3: I would like to be listed as contributing an article with the following title:

(I am a  board and card game designer btw, see: "Kami-do card game"  folder at top in my gallery if you're interested in card games)


suitable for inclusion in the 16th century time period perhaps? or I could split it into two parts to conform more nearly to the time zones? (p1: 16th, p2: 2oth century )


(BTW: S/TITLE WILL BE: The Many Facets Of Card Art and Art Cards (from 2,700 BCE to the present day ) )

(1 Reply)
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