Edouard Manet’s Olympia was completed in 1863.
It is one of the most admired yet controversial paintings of all time. Depicting a nude woman (the Olympia of the title) reclining on a sumptuously furnished bed, it instigated equal amounts of shock and incredulity on its unveiling to the French public.
It was first displayed at the Paris Salon of 1865, and has since emerged as one of the most famous impressionist paintings.
Edouard Manet paintings often developed classical themes. Inspired by the great renaissance masters, Olympia references Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. Despite these bucolic depictions, Manet brought the sitter into an everyday indoor scene.
Deviating from traditional academic style, quick brushstrokes, large areas of color and flat depth characterize the painting. Unlike recent heavily mythologized nudes such as Alexandre Cabanel ‘s The Birth of Venus, Manet’s Olympia is unmistakably a real woman in a real setting.
The maid offering the bunch of flowers was known as Laure. Whilst the real woman’s last name remains unidentified, her inclusion in the painting is a topic of intense scholarly debate. Painted just fifteen years after the abolition of slavery in France, racist views still abounded in Paris.
Some argue Laure’s inclusion served as a negative counterpoint to the white woman, signifying racial stereotypes of the age. Others (such as Charles Bernheimer) posit Manet included the maid figure to develop the theory of chiaroscuro, with opposing light and dark tones.
The woman in Manet’s painting is Victorine Meurent, an established model and painter in her own right. Although known today as Manet’s chief muse, she also regularly exhibited at the Paris Salon. Indeed, in 1876 her paintings were selected for the juried Salon show whilst Edouard Manet artworks were not.
Victorine Meurent’s recognizability and celebrity added to Parisian viewers’ shock. A well-known society lady couldn’t possibly represent historical or mythological meanings, leaving no other focus but her sexuality.
Whilst assessing Edouard Manet’s Olympia, it is important to note it wasn’t the woman’s nudity that scandalized the French public. Indeed, it wasn’t even the suggestions of her prostitution, the contrast between her fully-clothed assistant or the issues of class and race inherent in the large painting. Instead, the woman’s intense, direct stare confounded contemporary audiences.
This lack of shame created a significant scandal. Various details in the painting present the woman as a “demi-mondaine”, a fact she doesn’t appear to be hiding.
Clues include the visible orchid tucked behind the woman’s ear, her jewelry and oriental shawl. In addition, the black ribbon choker and silk slipper further underlie the opulence and licentiousness. Charles Baudelaire also noted Meurent’s thinness was particularly indecent.
Although Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (or “Luncheon on the Grass”) also generated extreme dissension on its debut in 1863, Olympia far surpassed this. “Vulgar” and “immoral” were just some of the words describing it in the press.
One of the few voices in support was Émile Zola. He praised Manet’s honesty and refusal to “correct nature”. Instead, he argued that Manet decided to “tell the truth” and depict the woman of the age, the “fille of our time”. It is this realism in subject manner as well as astounding painterly technique that firmly places Olympia amongst the most famous realism paintings.
Purchased in 1890 by the French government, the painting currently hangs in the Musée d'Orsay.
Manet was born in Paris in 1832 and died in 1883. He was not a successful student and failed the entrance exam to Naval College twice. His wealthy parents were reluctant to accept that art was his chosen path but his academic failures persuaded them and in 1850 he joined the Studio of Thomas Couture to work his tutelage.
Famous paintings by Edouard Manet depict scenes of modern life in Paris and his paintings bridged the gap between Realism and Impressionism. Manet is a central figure in the history of art and was dubbed the Father of Modern Art.
Luncheon on the Grass 1862 (Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe) was rejected by the Official Salon but it has become one of Manet's most acclaimed fine art oil on canvas.
The original Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe painting is at the Musee d'Orsay, whilst an earlier version is held by the Courtauld Gallery.
Plum Brandy c1877 also known as La Prune, is another of Manet's portraits of observation of Paris café life. In 1961 the painting was donated to Washington's National Gallery of Art by The Mellon Foundation.
The Luncheon of the Boating Party 1881 is Manet's most iconic painting and also one of his largest oil on canvas works. The scene is social gathering at La Maison Fournaise on the Seine where Manet was a frequent visitor. All the subjects in the painting have been identified as close friends of Manet and his future wife, Aline Charigot is the female to the left of the painting, holding the small dog.
Manet's Spring (le Printemps) 1881 is a portrait of Jeanne deMarsy which was very successfully received when it was exhibited at the 1882 Exhibition of the Paris Salon.
The painting was purchased by the Getty Museum in 2014 for over $65 million. This price exceeded the estimate and set a new record for any Manet painting at that time.
The Bar at the Folies-Bergere was painted in 1882 and is one of our most popular Manet reproductions. Manet regularly frequented The Folies-Bergeres; the infamous music hall and cabaret in Paris at that time. There has been much scholarly speculation about the accuracy of the perspective of The Bar at the Folies-Bergere but nevertheless it is one of Manet's famous oil paintings. Manet's controversial painting Olympia 1883 was inspired by Titian's Venus of Urbano. Olympia was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1865 but it met with derision and scorn as it rejected the established classical lines of the great masters with its thick black lines and visible brushstrokes. In Manet's Olympia painting "Venus" is depicted as a courtesan whose brazen and direct gaze challenges the viewer. Monet and Manet first became acquainted in 1886 but it wasn't until 1874 that they painted together at Grenouillère and Argenteuil. Encouraged by Monet, Manet began painting en plein air, and as a result painted Boating 1874. This painting has a bright color palette and whilst the female has not been identified, the male figure is Manet's brother-in-law Rudolphe Leenhoff. Manet's brother, Eugene, married his friend and fellow artist Berthe Morisot. Manet died in 1883 after having a foot amputated due to gangrene. However he left a legacy of over 400 oil paintings and a further 500 works on paper.
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