When in Paris, you must speak a little art. Today I remembered Manet’s Olympia, one of the most criticized nude painting of all times – or at least this is what historians say.

According to Musee d’Orsay, where the paining can still be found and admired, With Olympia, Manet reworked the traditional theme of the female nude, using a strong, uncompromising technique. Both the subject matter and its depiction explain the scandal caused by this painting at the 1865 Salon. Even though Manet quoted numerous formal and iconographic references, such as Titian’sVenus of Urbino, Goya’s Maja desnuda, and the theme of the odalisque with her black slave, already handled by Ingres among others, the picture portrays the cold and prosaic reality of a truly contemporary subject. Venus has become a prostitute, challenging the viewer with her calculating look. This profanation of the idealized nude, the very foundation of academic tradition, provoked a violent reaction. Critics attacked the “yellow-bellied odalisque” whose modernity was nevertheless defended by a small group of Manet’s contemporaries with Zola at their head. 

When Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia is hung in the Salon of Paris in 1865, it is met with jeers, laughter, criticism, and disdain, writes Culture Shock. It is attacked by the public, the critics, the newspapers. Guards have to be stationed next to it to protect it, until it is moved to a spot high above a doorway, out of reach.

With Olympia, Manet, instead of following the accepted practice in French art, which dictates that paintings of the figure are to be modeled on historical, mythical, or biblical themes, chooses to paint a woman of his time — not a feminine ideal, but a real woman, and a courtesan at that. And he paints her in his own manner: in place of the smooth shading of the great masters, his forms are painted quickly, in rough brushstrokes clearly visible on the surface of the canvas.

In painting reality as he sees it, Manet challenges the accepted function of art in France, which is to glorify history and the French state, and creates what some consider the first modern painting. His model, Victorine Meurent, is depicted as a courtesan, a woman whose body is a commodity. While middle-and- upper class gentlemen of the time may frequent courtesans and prostitutes, they do not want to be confronted with one in a painting gallery. A real woman, flaws and all, with an independent spirit, stares out from the canvas, confronting the viewer, something French society in 1865 is perhaps not ready to face.

After Manet’s death, the painter Claude Monet organizes a fund to purchase Olympia and offers it to the French state. It now hangs in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, where it is considered a priceless masterpiece of 19th French painting.

Olympia - Edouard Manet

Olympia – Edouard Manet, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France