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.
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