Manet ‘s Olympia caused a scandal in its time. This painting kept at the Musée d’Orsay can be seen as a founding work of modernity in painting.

Manet Olympia
Edouard Manet ‘s Olympia

An outburst of hostile clamor against it

In 1863, Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favorite model in the 1860s, posed for this nude considered at the time to be the most scandalous female nude ever painted. With Olympia, Manet reinvents the traditional theme of the female nude through the play of frank and uncompromising painting. When the Olympia faced public opinion for the first time at the Salon of 1865, there was an outburst of hostile clamor against it. Manet, furiously opposed by the supporters of classicism, had foreseen the storm and long hesitated to exhibit his work. He decided on it only on the entreaties of Baudelaire.

Manet long hesitated to exhibit his work

The canvas was therefore exhibited, but it had to be moved and hung on the highest of the walls to save it from the anger of a public stirred up by criticism. The subject as much as the pictorial language explain the scandal that the work in 1865. Even if Manet multiplies the formal and iconographic references: the Venus of Urbino by Titian, the Maja desnuda by Goya…. But these nudes found their legitimacy under a mythological, allegorical or symbolic cover, Manet painted the portrait of a prostitute staged as such. The title itself explains the subject (Olympia was a common nickname among courtesans of the time), as does the little black cat on the right, an obvious erotic allusion, or the bouquet of flowers held out to the foreground by the servant black. This bouquet, certainly sent by a lover, was felt at the time as a supreme provocation on the part of Manet.

A straight and frank gaze

The treatment of the body was another cause of scandal. Indeed, if the composition is largely inspired by The Venus of Urbino by Titian, the nude is very far from it: here, no idealization, little modeling and a treatment in flat areas firmly outlined in black which goes against the academic principles. The cold colors accentuate the hardness of the flat tints, but the balance of pinks, whites and blacks testifies to Manet’s talents as a colourist. Finally, the assurance of this woman, her straight and frank gaze was felt as an additional provocation on the part of the artist; some thought they saw the obvious influence of photographs of prostitutes of the time. Critics vilified “this odalisque with a yellow belly” whose modernity was nevertheless defended by some contemporaries led by Zola.

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