The history of Manet’s ‘Olympia’

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The history of Manet’s ‘Olympia’

Edouard Manet - Olympia (1863)

Manet et manebit

(He remains and will remain)

Ever since Manet’s Olympia (1863) appeared in the Paris Salon of 1865, it has aroused strong reactions ranging from disgust to admiration.  Many modern critics have simply followed the mistaken assumption that Olympia is a portrait of a prostitute.  But by looking carefully at the picture and analysing its details, you can see that she is a courtesan, not a whore.

Three important critics have explained how Edouard Manet boldly defied the traditional painting of the nude in his controversial masterpiece.  In 1926 Theodore Duret, French journalist and early advocate of Manet, perceptively wrote: “The proper function of the nude, as it was then conceived, was to assist in the rendering of fable, mythology and ancient history. . . . Into this world of conventional goddesses, Manet presumed to introduce a modern Parisienne, an Olympia lying on a bed.”

Thirty years later Kenneth Clark observed in his classic study of the genre, “for the first time since the Renaissance a painting of the nude represented a real woman in probable surroundings. . . . To place on a naked body a head with so much individual character is to jeopardise the whole [mythological] premise of the nude, and Manet succeeds only because of his perfect tact and skill as a painter.”  In 1982 John Richardson, the biographer of Picasso, added, “Her direct, unwavering and unavoidable gaze (which appears to follow the spectator around the room) implies a self-confidence, even arrogance, at variance with accepted notions of paintings of the female nude.”

Manet’s Olympia imaginatively transformed Goya’s Naked Maja (1800), which had provoked the censure of the Spanish Inquisition.  Maja’s luxuriant black hair frames her large eyes and tiny mouth, and cascades down to her shoulder.  Her arms, crossed behind her head, raise and spread her full but perky breasts.  She has a narrow waist, and reveals a thin veil of pubic hair between her legs, which extend along the cushioned bed.  Fred Licht adds, “with her expression of relaxed dreaminess . . .  she stares challengingly out of the picture, obviously aware of being looked over but quite indifferent to being on exhibition. . . . The utter lack of any ornament stands in sharpest contrast to the pleasures suggested by the Maja.”

Francisco Goya – The Nude Maja (1800).

Duret provided a good description of Manet’s picture: “Olympia was painted nude, lying upon a bed, with one arm resting on a cushion.  Beneath her is spread a kind of Indian shawl of a yellow tinge, slightly figured with flowers.  Behind the bed a negress is bringing her mistress a large bouquet, the brilliant tones of which are juxtaposed with the utmost daring.  The whole is completed by a black cat, with arched back, placed on the bed at the side of the negress.”  A modern critic has commented on her ornamental jewelry, her shoes and her pretty feet: “Shoulder-length tresses just brush her left shoulder. . . . She wears delicate drop-earrings, a thin black choker tied in a bow, with a charm, and a thick gold bracelet, from which dangles a locket.  The only other things she wears are satin mules, medium heel, with blue and gold trim.  The satin mules are of the closed-toe style, and the toes of her bare foot extend just past the shod one” and peep out enticingly.

The painting of Olympia, reclining on her amply pillowed bed, is structured by connected and contrasting colours.  The red orchid in her red hair is echoed in her red lips, the red flowers that decorate her fringed shawl, and the maid’s coral earrings, red lower lip, red turban and red blossoms in her expensive bouquet. Olympia’s white-pearl-drop earrings form a triangle with the white oval-shaped faceted pendant in her choker, which separates the mental and physical parts of her body.  The black choker is echoed in the Black maid and the black cat.  The maid’s dark skin and billowing gown contrast to Olympia’s ivory-white skin and bare body.  The maid’s four claw-like black fingers clutching the bouquet echo the four paws of the black cat, with arched back and erect tail, that sits on the edge of the bed.  The bright eyes of the maid and the cat stare out of their dark backgrounds like beams of light in the night.  The black cat and Olympia, who raises her head but ignores the maid, both stare directly at the viewer.  The alert, protective and hostile cat, quivering with electricity, seems to be hissing at the approaching lover who’s about to enter its domain.

The vertical frame of the screen behind Olympia leads the eye down to her crotch.  Both modest and provocative, she conceals with spread fingers the sex that’s reserved for her lover, while also drawing attention to it.  The viewer, who can look at Olympia but may not touch her, experiences voyeuristic and vicarious pleasure by seeing with his eyes what the possessive lover will soon enjoy with his body.

No one has noticed that Manet includes three subtle variants of her apparently concealed genitals.  Her red armpit hair and the fissure between her shoulder and chest suggest the color and position of her pubic hair.

The index and middle finger of her left hand, resting on her thigh, look remarkably like two spread legs with visible public hair.  The same V-shaped cleavage with a dark pubic center also appears between her heel and her dangling shoe.

Manet portrayed the square face and pointed chin of his favorite model, the nineteen-year-old Victorine Meurent, in his Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) and Olympia.  A friend reported that “Manet, having met her by chance in the middle of a crowd in the hall of the Palais de Justice, had been struck by her original appearance and her sculptural look.  She could scarcely have been more than twenty years old.”  (Picasso later met his muse and model Marie-Thérèse Walter in the same way.  He approached her outside the Galeries Lafayette in Paris in 1927, when she was seventeen, and remarked, “You have an interesting face.  I would like to paint you.  I am Picasso.”  She’d never heard of him.)  Victorine later became a successful painter herself and exhibited in the Salons of 1876 and 1879.

Edouard Manet – Luncheon on the Grass (1863)

Juliet Wilson-Bareau explains that Olympia’s “subject matter was bound—if not actually calculated—to outrage the moral sentiments of the day, since prudery flourished in France under the Second Empire just as in Victorian England.”  Manet finished the painting in 1863, but anticipating trouble and despite the encouragement of his close friends, nervously held it back for two years.  Exhibited in the Salon of 1865, it was furiously condemned by the disgusted public and press—outraged critics called Olympia a “bundle of laundry” and “a female gorilla”—which stoked the fires of controversy and increased the circulation of newspapers.  Toward the end of the exhibition the threat of physical violence forced the officials to station guards nearby and place the picture high up where it could escape both attention and attack.   Georges Bataille notes the astonishing transformation of taste in only a few decades, by asking, “what further heights might have been reached by the passions of the crowd, had they been able to foresee that 40 years later, in 1907, the object of their deprecation would take its place in the Louvre?”

The English art critic Roger Fry wrote that Manet was devastated by the assault on Olympia: “The papers howled with rage; wherever he was recognized he was a marked man.  This refined gentleman, who belonged to the most cultured circles of the professional class, was really believed by the public to be an almost inhuman monster of depravity, because he had painted two pictures [including Luncheon] which repeated two favourite themes of the old masters.  The effect of this on so sensitive a nature was violent.”  Manet tried to defend himself, stating, “I interpret what I see as straightforwardly as possible.  Olympia is a case in point.  People have objected to the harsh contours, but they were there.  I saw them.  I painted what I saw.”

The Black woman suggesting exotic sensuality and the black cat symbolizing sexual promiscuity were both portrayed in the poetry of Manet’s friend Charles Baudelaire.  Chatte in French slang, like “pussy” in English, refers to a woman’s sexual organ.  Baudelaire derived his cats from his translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat,” which begins by noting that sagacious black cats are popularly regarded as witches in disguise.  In Poe’s story the cat, which has magical powers, represents the return of the narrator’s repressed consciousness and leads to his inevitable self-destruction.

Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal had also been condemned as obscene in 1857, and he had fled to Brussels in 1864 to avoid imprisonment for debt. Appealing to Baudelaire for understanding and sympathy, Manet lamented, “I am being subjected to a hail of insults.”  Baudelaire, who knew how it felt, tried to fortify him: “Do you think you are the first to whom such a thing has happened?  Are you a greater genius than Chateaubriand or Wagner?  People ridiculed them just as much, but they didn’t die of it.”  Baudelaire told mutual friends in Paris that the painful attacks on Manet could have a beneficial effect: “Manet has a powerful talent, one that will last.  But he has a weak character.  He seems to be desolate and dizzy with shock. . . . When you see Manet, tell him this: that torment—whether it be great or small—that mockery, that insults, that injustice are excellent things, and that he would be ungrateful if he were not thankful for injustice.  I know well that he will have some difficulty understanding my theory; painters always want immediate success.  But really, Manet has such  brilliant and facile ability, that it would be unfortunate if he became discouraged.”  As his wounds gradually healed, Manet accepted Baudelaire’s paradoxical theory and told a friend: “This war with knives has hurt me very deeply.  I’ve suffered cruelly, but it has been a great stimulus.  I wouldn’t want any artist to be praised and flattered at the beginning.”  As Nietzsche declared: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

The first edition of Les Fleurs du mal with author’s notes.

Manet was also defended by some of his greatest contemporaries.  In 1867 Emile Zola described Olympia as Manet’s “masterpiece” and stated: “It will remain as the most characteristic example of his talent, his greatest achievement. . . . The pale colouring of the child’s body is charming.  She is a young girl of sixteen . . . a contemporary girl, the sort of girl we meet every day on the pavements. . . Some people attached an obscene significance to it.”  Countering the attacks and minimising the sexual content, Zola called Olympia an innocent child and young girl.  He described the amazing nude as quite ordinary, ignored her sensuality and didn’t mention her luxurious surroundings.

In 1876 the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, choosing an accurate but hotly debated term, called Olympia a courtesan and defended the morality of the painting: “Olympia, that wan, wasted courtesan, showing to the public, for the first time, the non-traditional, unconventional nude.  The bouquet, still enclosed in its paper envelope, the gloomy cat. . . and all the surrounding accessories, were truthful, but not immoral.”  The novelist J.-K. Huysmans noted the superb colours and Olympia’s subtle expression, and described her as “very lovely, background of green curtain, bluish white sheets, her head looks at you in a teasingly enigmatic way.”

Gauguin copied Olympia, Cézanne and Picasso painted variants, and Cézanne also recognized its originality and importance: “We must keep Olympia in sight.  It’s a new step in painting.  Our Renaissance begins there: it’s a real painting of things.  Those pinks and whites lead us along a path our sensibilities knew nothing of before.”  Zola and Mallarmé, both friends of and painted by Manet, as well as Huysmans and Cézanne, were brilliantly perceptive.  The contemporary journalists who attacked the painting have been completely forgotten; the sharp-eyed critics are still remembered for their novels, poems and art.

The weirdest misreading came from the poet Paul Valéry in an otherwise appreciative essay of 1932.  In “The Triumph of Manet” Valéry called him a “great artist” yet exclaimed:

The cold and naked Olympia, that monster of banal sensuality, is ministered to by a negress.  Olympia shocks, inspires a sacred horror; she dominates and triumphs. A scandalous idol, she has all the force of a public exposure of one of society’s wretched hypocrisies.  Her empty head is separated from her essential being by a thin band of black velvet.  Impurity personified—whose function demands the frank and placid absence of any sense of shame—is isolated by that pure and perfect stroke.  A bestial Vestal of absolute nudity, she invokes a dream of all the primitive barbarity and ritual animality which lurks and lingers in the ways and workings of prostitution in the life of a great city.

Valéry’s wildly off-the-rails description—monster, scandalous idol, impurity personified, bestial Vestal, barbarity, animality and (contra Mallarmé) prostitution—does not match the actual beauty of the picture.  Aroused and infuriated by Olympia, Valéry seemed to be exorcising his own sexual demons and falsely imagined what was not there.

Art historians have since sharply disagreed  about whether Olympia is a crude prostitute or a pampered courtesan.  Olympia originally and most accurately referred to a goddess on Mount Olympus in ancient Greece.  Manet brought her down from the mythological heights and placed her in a contemporary setting.  Her name has been ignored by many modern critics who have preconceived notions and ignore the visual content of the picture, blindly follow a fashionable but ill-informed trend and try to spice up their dull analyses with  a bit of scandal.  These respectable academic scholars, who prefer gender to sex, are fascinated by the forbidden fornication of prostitutes, revert to the reactionary disgust of 1865 and want to condemn all models as whores.

Françoise Cachin (1983), casting aside all doubts, asserts that “Manet had, quite simply, without equivocation, painted a prostitute on her couch [i.e. bed], ready for action, expecting a client [i.e. lover].”  The influential Marxist critic T. J. Clark (1984), to whom all scholars bend the knee, categorically asserts that Manet “depicted a prostitute . . . with a prostitute’s stare.”  Clark tries to justify his degradation of Manet’s model by stating, “its usual French form, Olympe, is given as one of a list of thirty-five common surnoms for prostitutes . . . Olympia was a well-known prostitutes’ name.”  But the name is not decisive, and French women blessed with the other 34 names on that infamous list were certainly not all prostitutes.  Sander Gilman (1985), in the convoluted style appropriate to Critical Inquiry, states, “While the  number of terms describing the various categories of the prostitute expanded substantially during the nineteenth century, all were used to label the sexualised woman.”  Ignoring all ambiguity, Alan Krell (1996) exclaims, “it seems clear that it is a painting of a prostitute.”

The worst offender is Nancy Locke (2001), who recalls, “recent art-historical accounts of Manet’s Olympia . . . have concentrated in varying ways on the extent to which Manet’s painting represented a contemporary prostitute of some kind.”  She then makes her own dubious contribution, with the inevitable “perhaps” and “probably”: “The interior is hers: the maid and cat know her, so she is no streetwalker.  Her accessories and maid are worthy of a bourgeois home, as opposed to a bordello.  Yet her nudity and her look out at the viewer, even as the gift of flowers arrives, would suggest that she is perhaps between customers, and thus not a kept woman and probably not a high-class call girl, either.  Olympia seems less to recall the brothel than to foreshadow the maison de rendez-vous, the decorous class of nineteenth-century Parisian houses of prostitution.”  This is a perfect example of poor reasoning based on unconvincing evidence and leading to an absurd conclusion.  Even more absurdly, she insists, with the usual “possible”: “it is possible, then, that the Olympia is not only wearing his mother’s bracelet, but also posing in the family home.”  But it’s not at all clear and logical why Manet would pollute the respectable home of his parents by bringing in a prostitute.

Three contributors to Manet and Modern Beauty (2019) disagree with each other and even with themselves.  Scott Allen says Olympia depicts  a “titular prostitute”; Leah Lehmbeck calls the painting a “contemporary image of a prostitute.”  Bridget Alsdorf also states that Olympia was “widely recognised as a prostitute.”  But changing tack in the same wobbly essay, she also—and more correctly—notes that the bouquet of “flowers aligns Manet’s practice as an artist of the demimonde” and that Olympia is a courtesan.

Alsdorf focuses on but does not clarify whether Olympia is a prostitute or a quite distinct demimondaine or courtesan.  Both terms signify a woman supported by and exclusively devoted to a wealthy lover, who treats her with courtesy, respect and affection.  Olympia’s setting is comfortable and elegant, not at all vulgar and squalid.

There’s no alluring red lantern hanging outside her door.  She’s completely different from the raddled whores portrayed by Félicien Rops and Jules Pascin, and from Edgar Degas’ The Madam’s Name Day (1877), in which the naked whores — obese, misshapen and ugly — face forward and blatantly display their tangled bush.  In Olympia by contrast, the maid’s bountiful bouquet (not sent to whores) announces the lover’s imminent arrival through the parted green curtain and open rear door, which resemble a stage set.  Manet’s Nana (1877) portrays the next scene in this intimate drama, when the top-hatted gentleman-lover impatiently waits and watches the en deshabille Nana dress herself, before he will later undress her.

Three early French critics emphasised Olympia’s maidenly chastity and innocent youth.  In his 1863 poem “Olympia”, the painter Zacherie Astruc called her “The august maiden, keeper of the flame”, and Manet adopted this title for his still unnamed picture.  The painter Jacques-Emile Blanche (1925) emphasised the connection to Baudelaire and Olympia’s delightful skin, and ironically compared her to the conventional nudes of the Prix de Rome artists whom Manet had opposed: “Baudelaire was attracted by the savour of the Olympia, that marvel of still, incomplete gracefulness, and was stirred by the touch of perversity of that bewitching maid painted in silver, milk and soft rose, who [modestly] lays her hand on that part of herself which a winner of the Rome Prize would have veiled.”  Theodore Duret (1926) agreed that “today she appears as chaste as any of the nymphs of mythology,” which was (as we have seen) the traditional portrayal of the nude.  Emile Zola (1867) had described her as “a young girl of sixteen” with a well-developed “child’s body.”

The far more perceptive and convincing interpretation, based on Manet’s actual portrayal, is that the once-maidenly Olympia is not a prostitute but a courtesan.  Theodore Reff, in his influential book devoted to Olympia (1976), calls her the bold and elegant “starkly naked yet fashionable . . . wealthy courtesan who [in the reign of Napoleon III] was then at the height of her power and notoriety.”  Richard Shone (1978) writes, “this slim young demimondaine . . . has the persistence of an icon, inviolate in her self-assurance.”  Manet’s biographer Beth Brombert (1996) sensibly and persuasively concludes that Olympia is not a whore: “Though a courtesan rather than a deity, she is not a sordid streetwalker, victim of society.  The opulence of her bed, the stylishness of her mules, the presence of a well-dressed servant, and the extravagant bouquet clearly indicate her status.”

Other art historians have perversely and repeatedly described Manet’s Olympia as a prostitute.  But she doesn’t work in a whorehouse or walk the streets or have sex with any man able to pay for her services.  Like many kept women in life and literature, then and now, she has a wealthy lover who maintains her in comfortable circumstances and provides jewelry and an attendant maid.  She awaits his arrival, naked and ready to pleasure him.  Like a true gentleman, he sends her a bouquet of flowers and, as the maid discreetly withdraws from the scene, delights in her body before exclusively enjoying her favours.


Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has published five books on art: Painting and the Novel, The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis, Impressionist Quartet, Modigliani: A Life and Alex Colville: The Mystery of the Real.

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