Thursday, 30 March 2017

Edouard Manet's Olympia

Manet's Olympia

I have been reading Emile Zola's novel Nana, first published in 1880

Manet - Nana (1877)

It tells the story of a young prostitute in Paris who becomes a fashionable courtesan, infamous for the cruel way she treats her many lovers

We first come across her in an earlier novel - L'Assommoir - but now she is an actress who, at the start of the new novel, appears in an operetta as a scantily clad 'Venus' 

Which brings me to Edouard Manet's equally infamous painting - Olympia 

 Manet - Olympia (1863)

This painting was done in 1863 but when it was first shown in public at the Salon de Paris in 1865 it caused a sensation

The pose is derived from Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538), itself copied from a reclining nude by Giorgione of 1510

Titian - Venus of Urbino

While the pose is very similar, what shocked contemporaries in Manet's painting was the frank depiction - not of a 'Classical' nude - but of a naked courtesan 

Manet's treatment of  the reclining woman ran counter to contemporary idealisations of the nude female, as espoused by a moribund French Academy
Take Alexander Cabarel's Birth of Venus for example:

 Cabarel - Birth of Venus (1863)

This saccharine confection was painted the same year as Olympia and yet it is light years behind Manet's innovative work, with its bold brush strokes and provocative subject matter 

Cabarel's painting was bought by Napoleon III - which probablyy speaks volumes for fashionable 'taste' in the Second Empire

It is exactly the kind of painting - with its polished, glossy surface and coy pose - that The Royal Academy actively endorsed

 Olympia (detail)

Interestingly, one of the men to support Manet at the time was Emile Zola himself
In 1877 Manet had made a painting of a young courtesan standing before her mirror, with her 'client' seated (adoringly) on the sofa right of frame

This was originally a portrait of Henriette Hauser but after the publication of Zola's novel in 1880 was was widely known as Nana

Manet (albeit quite unintentionally) has caught the cheap character of the novel's Nana exceptionally well

This mixture of coquetishness and undeniable sex appeal is that a young woman who is clearly comfortable with  her sexuality and 'commercial' station in society

Manet's Nana is not as effective as Olympia whose hard, unyielding stare out of frame (at her client as well as us, the viewer!) is quite provocative


Moreover, Olympia's hand - covering her genitals - has none of the innocent languor of the Titian or, for example, the elegance of Goya's Maja desnuda


In short, Manet created a portrait of an odalisque (reclining woman) very much for his age - a painting that shocked his contemporaries but broke the stranglehold French academicians held over contemporary 'taste'

It also lead the way for the great, Modernist odalisques of Matisse and Picasso

Mike Healey

You can see Olympia at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris 


 Jack Vettriano

If you would like to see some of the paintings Olympia inspired, then click on the link below:

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