Paintings of Venuses pop up everywhere in the history of art, but my favourite representation of Venus, the ideal of beauty and a symbol of eroticism, is Manet’s version.
Olympia is a painting by Manet, painted in 1863 and first exhibited two years later. It shows a nude woman, Olympia, lying on a bed with a rumpled linen, completely uninterested in a bouquet of flowers that her black servant is presenting. Olympia is modeled by Victorine Meurent; Manet’s favourite model who posed for many of his famous works such as The Luncheon on the Grass, Woman with parrot, Street Singer and The Railway. Victorine, a model and an artist herself, was only nineteen years old when she set for this Manet’s masterpiece in 1863.
Manet’s unique depiction of a self-assured courtesan shocked both the critics and the audience. The painting was controversial not because it showed a nude woman, nudes were nothing new in art, but because of Olympia’s straight forward gaze and details that suggest that she is a courtesan. Orchid in her hair, her bracelet, worn out mule slippers, ribbon tied around her neck, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies all accentuate her sexuality, nakedness and courtesan lifestyle. In addition, swept hair, the orchid, black cat and the bouquet of flowers were all recognised as symbols of sexuality at the time. Even the name ‘Olympia’ was associated with the ‘ladies of the night‘ in Paris at the time.
Olympia’s confrontational, blunt and uninterested gaze absolutely disgusted the critics. Olympia disdainfully ignores the bouquet of flowers presented to her by her servant, probably a gift from her client. Some even suggested that she is looking in the floor indifferently because one of her client had just barged in unannounced. Her gaze is puzzling even today; at first it seems dull and lifeless, yet it possesses a whole set of emotions and thoughts. Her large dark eyes convey a mood of melancholy and contempt at once.
Manet’s representation of Venus was something completely new, and it was, as such, rejected by critics. Every tiny detail of the painting repelled them, from the model’s face to overt symbols of sexuality. According to Antonin Proust, French journalist and politician, ‘only the precautions taken by the administration prevented the painting being punctured and torn‘ by offended viewers.
Shocking the audience was nothing new for Manet; he did it before with his painting The Luncheon on the Grass. At the time, it seemed that there was nothing more he could do to infuriate the critics, but with ‘Olympia‘ he succeeded even in that. Namely, it was a challenge for Manet to paint a nude which would be shown in Salon at display. The painting’s modernity was defended by a small group of like-minded contemporaries with Emile Zola at their head. The painting’s ‘avant-garde‘ appeal was also appreciated by artists such as Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet and Paul Gauguin.
Even Olympia’s hand position is a mockery of the old masters; in previous depictions Venus gently and modestly hides her pubic area with her hand, but here the hand looks almost ‘shamelessly flexed‘, according to a contemporary critic, showing Manet’s profound sense of wit and mockery of the relaxed and modestly shielding hand of Tizian’s Venus. In composition, Manet deliberately placed a black cat at the foot of the bed instead of the sleeping dog in Tizian’s portrayal of Venus of Urbino; black cat symbolising sexuality instead of the dog that was considered a symbol of fidelity.
Manet’s paintings may seem serious today, but deviations from the norms were a constant in Manet’s artistic career. The flatness of the painting is inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints which influenced many artists later on too, most notably van Gogh. These served to make the nude appear more humane and less voluptuous which was the norm in all the previous representations of Venus. Here, Olympia’s body is rather thin according to the artistic standards of the day, and looks underdeveloped, more girlish than womanly. Also, the skin tone looks yellowy and sickly, not fresh and rosy as you’d expect from a goddess. The bracelet we see Olympia wearing on her right hand belonged to Manet’s wife, which again adds a natural tones to his art.
Manet’s version of Venus is all together an ironic take on the works of old masters and the representation of Venus in art in general. Prior to seeing Manet’s ‘Olympia’, the audience most likely had an image of a plump, healthy and womanly looking Venus, with long golden hair, representing the timeless ideal of beauty, but the obvious absence of idealism in Manet’s painting appalled the audience.
With this painting, Manet presented a modern Venus; a real woman with all her flaws and imperfection, in real and natural surroundings, far from the previous mythological settings. Double standards of morality of the Victorian society are evident here as well; a nude woman is appropriate only if it is the case of a mythological scene, but a nude prostitute is not acceptable, even if it mirrored the reality.
The modern Venus is a high-class courtesan waiting for a client. Victorine Meurent perfectly fitted in the role of Olympia for she is the modern Venus, the woman from the streets, not possessing the kind of artificial beauty painters have aspired to paint in the form of Venus ever since the Renaissance. This difference between traditional Venus and Manet’s modern one is particularly apparent if you compare ‘Olympia‘ with Alexander Cabanel’s ‘The Birth of Venus‘ painted the same year.
As it is the case with ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’, Manet was inspired by the works of old masters regarding the composition. In part, Olympia was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c.1538), or, painted even earlier, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (c.1510), which was painted by Giorgione and finished by Titian after Giorgione had died.
There are however many other female nudes that could have served as inspiration such as Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (1800), Paris Bordone’s Sleeping Venus with Cupid (1540), Reni’s Venus and Amor (1639), and many others. Again, in all these versions the atmosphere is sensuous, warm and opulent, whereas Manet depicted a drab everyday reality of a Parisian courtesan.
Olympia, a modern Venus, is nor erotic nor the ideal of beauty, she is a woman full of melancholy, disgust and contempt for the hypocritical high society.
Manet repeated the tested recipe for shocking the audience and the critics, as with his previous masterpice ‘The Luncheon on the Grass‘, Manet used the composition from the respected artists and painted something completely modern, daring and scandalous, at the same time mocking the past and revealing the true face of society and its problems, its hypocrisy and insincerity. With a little wit, Manet turned a masterpiece into a scandal.