Paris, Musee d’Orsay

Oil on canvas

130.5 x 190 cm  (51 3/8 x 74 3/4 in)

When Olympia was presented at the Salon of 1865, out of all the paintings on the walls, and it is believed to have been thousands, it was Olympia which caused such an uproar that authorities were forced to put two armed guards at the painting to protect it. 

Edouard Manet (1832-1883) is the father of modern painting and his Olympia is now part of the hallmark of art history. It is hard for us to see this picture, knowing all that we now know — all the art that has come after — and fully appreciate just how strikingly different Manet was. The uproar at the Salon was a frontal assault on the established methods of painting and the Salon was “the field of battle” according to Manet. This was not just an evolution of thought but a revolution against the sensibilities of the time. The critics fought back and so did the public — Manet was intensely hated, scoffed at, ridiculed and made the butt of jokes.

One of the few more sympathetic reviews read as follows:

June 7, 1865 

The scapegoat of the Salon, the victim of Parisian lynch law. Each passer-by takes a stone and throws it in her face. Olympia is a crazy piece of Spanish madness, which is a thousand times better than the platitude and inertia of so many canvases on show in the Exhibition. 

Armed insurrection in the camps of the bourgeois: it is a glass of ice water which each visitor gets full in the face when he sees the BEAUTIFUL courtesan in full bloom 

Painted of the school of Baudelaire, freely executed by a pupil of Goya; the vicious strangeness of the little faubourienne, woman of the night out of  Paul Niquet, out of the mysteries of Paris and the nightmares of Edgar Poe. Her look has the sourness of someone aged, her face the disturbing perfume of fleur de mal; the body fatigued, corrupted, but painted under a single transparent light, with the shadows light and fine, the bed and the pillows are put down in the velvet modulated grey. Negress and flowers insufficient in execution, but with real harmony to them, the shoulder and arm solidly established in a clean and pure light. The cat arching its back makes the visitor laugh and relax, it is what saves M. Manet from popular execution.  

The Salon was the showcase for artist — there were no others to speak of and it was here that art patrons and artist met, made contacts for future commissions. It’s natural that most artist would want to be sensitive to the public to some degree. Manet was no different in that respect. He very much wanted the public to recognize what he was trying to do and he was hurt by the outrage against him; but he was so firmly grounded in the belief that established art had grown stale, its foundation of representing nature actually flawed and untrue and with independent income he could support himself in the absence of commissions. The war over the hearts and minds of the public was on and it would essentially rage till the end of the century. By then art would never be the same.

It is interesting to note that the composition of Olympia is not significantly different than other work that had been seen at the time(see Olympia in Juxtaposition). What is different however, is that he has taken what was essentially a classical composition and placed it in a contemporary setting, using a contemporary woman of common origins. This brought a sense of immediacy to the painting — a here and now. This was outrageous to the establishment that a mere common woman, one even of questionable character, could be the center of, if not the object of beauty in high art. Models had been used in art forever but they had always played the part of a goddess, a biblical character or within the scope of a theme. Here Manet sets his subject, a merecourtesan, as a goddess herself — not merely playing the part of one; and it is this that just blew the Parisian public away, though they didn’t want to admit it.

As we look back at it now, Manet was not really being that revolutionary. His ideas of using common people are right in line with Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) but he just took it to the next level. And if we look at the political history of France, the revolution and the overthrow of the aristocracy, the art world was ripe for a change in the way we view things — though the viewing public (who were often upper class) had to be dragged kicking and screaming.

Mark Harden’s Artchive


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