Édouard Manet – Olympia (1863)

Through his revolutionary approach to painting he disrupted the art scene and contributed to the birth of modern art. Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883) was a French painter that broke away from the academic style of painting by showing contemporaneous scenes with ordinary people instead of rendering historical or mythological paintings. His flat style achieved by using blocks of color and skipping the midtones, all while forgoing accuracy and detail, greatly influenced Impressionists like Monet, Cézanne, Degas.

Olympia (1863) is Manet’s modern version of Venus of Urbino, a famous painting by Titian. The audacity of Olympia consists in its blunt portrayal of a prostitute, with a lot of reinforcing symbols of sensuality that accentuate her nakedness, like the bracelet, the black ribbon around her neck, the cast-off slipper, the orchid in her hair or the oriental shawl beneath her body.  Manet also changed Titian’s dog, a symbol of loyalty, for a black cat, which symbolized prostitution. As if too subtle yet, Olympia was also a name associated with prostitutes in 19th century Paris.

Edouard Manet - Olympia
Édouard Manet – Olympia (1863), oil on canvas

Possibly most infuriating for the critics at that time was Olympia’s lack of shame for her status – in fact, she seems to relish it, looking proud and unapologetic, while her servant presents her with flowers from her clients. As opposed to Titian’s Venus whose hand rests languidly on her inner thigh, Olympia’s left hand is firmly placed over her pubis. The message is blunt: “no access until you pay.”

Almost lost in the background, the black servant is presented like a stereotypical Mammy. Some critics have argued that given how black women were hyper-sexed at the time, the servant’s presence exacerbates the sexuality of the painting.

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