Olympia by Edouard Manet in 1863 (Realism, Impressionism)
Paris, le Salon, 1865. Manet is hated again “They are raining insults on me. Someone must be wrong,” the artist wrote to his friend, French poet Baudelaire😢
Why were visitors to the Paris gallery so outraged by the painting that the gallery was forced to hire two policemen to protect the canvas?👮🏻👮🏻 Manet takes Titian’s Venus of Urbino as his model but instead of following the accepted practice in French art (figures to be modelled on historical, mythical, or biblical themes) Manet chooses to paint a woman of his time, not a feminine ideal, but a real woman, a courtesan.
Prostitution in France was in full swing in 1865, and was a subject of concern for many. The development of the department store and prefabricated clothing allowed consumers to buy more clothes for less money, enabling all women to keep up with trends in fashion, making it difficult to visually distinguish the Bourgeoisie from the prostitutes. The extent of this can be seen from an interesting comment by Parent-Duchâtelet, a famous French doctor who studied prostitution : “We will have arrived at the limit of perfection… if we arrange it so that men… can distinguish them [prostitutes] from honest women; but that those women, and especially their daughters, cannot make this distinction…”
In fact, the rise in the number of prostitutes in Paris concerned the bourgeoisie that society was being undermined from within. Prostitutes were at all levels of society and at the highest level the courtesan was seen to be subversive because of her power and influence. Prostitution in some ways gave women a new power and the ultimate transaction of selling the body for money was seen to corrupt and subvert money and therefore capitalism itself.
And this potential threat reflects throughout Olympia’s confident attitude. Manet depicts a real woman, flaws and all, with an independent spirit, staring out from the canvas, confronting the viewer, something French society in 1865 was perhaps not ready to face.
After Manet’s death, Claude Monet organises a fund to purchase Olympia and offers it to the French state. It now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay.