Manet’s Olympia

manet_olympiaThe annual Paris Salon that opened in early May 1865 included two paintings by Manet that before the end of the month had been relegated to an obscure position hidden above a doorway. The overwhelmingly negative reaction of both the public and critics had caused the Salon to try to hide its collective embarrassment at having selected the pictures.

Before discussing the reaction it is necessary to set the scene in 1865 in terms of the social environment and the expectations of the attendees. Napoleon III had returned to France and established the second Empire in 1852 following the revolution of 1848. Napoleon was motivated to make his mark rapidly and the progress of industrialization, the new railways, new inventions, such as photography, and overseas expansion, particularly into Indochina created an exciting and vibrant atmosphere in Paris.

However, although there was a resurgence of feminism and other radical movements, such as socialism and communism the new bourgeoisie were sexually repressed. The extent of this can be seen from a comment by Parent-Duchételet’s[1] ‘We will have arrived at the limit of perfection’if we arrange it so that men can distinguish them [prostitutes] from honest women; but that those women, and especially their daughters, cannot make this distinction.’

In fact, the rise in the number of prostitutes in Paris and their ubiquitous presence increasingly concerned the bourgeoisie that society was being undermined from within. Prostitutes were at all levels of society and at the highest level the courtesan was seen to be subversive because of her power and influence. Prostitution in some ways gave women a new power and the ultimate transaction of selling the body for money was seen to corrupt and subvert money and therefore capitalism itself.

The public was accustomed to seeing nude paintings, in fact it was a popular genre and a many nudes were included each year. In 1865 the Salon included Louis Lamothe’s L’Origine du dessin, Louis-Frédéric Schutzenberger’s Europe enlevée par Jupiter, Firmin Girard’s Le Sommeil de Vénus, Felix-Henri Giacomotti’s L’Enlévement d’Amymone and Joseph-Victor Ranvier’s L’Enfance de Bacchus. However, all of these paintings were idealized and typically set in some mythological or arcadian world[2].

Manet had previously exhibited in 1863 and created a scandal with his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. However, despite the fact that it had to be shown in Napoleon’s new Salon des Refusés and was thought to be bizarre and immoral the critics were able to apply their analytical faculties and many saw the relationship with Titian’s (then thought to be by Giorgione) Fête champétre. Manet was a serious student, a pupil of the respected painter Thomas Couture and the son of a judge who was also chief of staff at the Ministry of Justice. Manet’s drawings, sketches and preliminary work show that he was a competent and well-trained artist who by 1865, when he was thirty three, had a small following.

From the first week the Salon opened Manet’s picture caused a sensation with crowds pushing and shoving to stand up close to view the infamous painting. The general reaction varied from laughter to mockery and catcalls. Contemporary accounts claim the crush of spectators was terrified, shocked, disgusted and moved to a kind of pity with epidemics of mad laughter and the Salon had to install guards to quell the riotous behaviour.

It might be expected that the art critics would take a more analytical and sober view and help put the painting in a broader art historical context. Of course, critics writing for newspapers were paid to sell newspapers and so tended to write for the gallery but many respected and normally independent critics also wrote reviews. In fact, the painting could not be ignored but of the more than seventy reviews only two were not outright hostile and none put the picture in any context or probed what the excitement was about, as they had two years previously.

It is next necessary to consider the picture itself. Manet in fact had two pictures accepted but only the one that became known as Olympia will be considered as this received most of the hostility. The painting is of a naked women lying propped up on large pillows on a bed covered in white sheets. The woman has an orchid in her dark brown Spanish-styled hair, a ribbon round her neck with a pendant jewel, a gold bracelet on her right upper wrist with a blue jewel attached and gold slippers, one of which has fallen from her right foot. She is lying on a yellow shawl that is placed on the bed and behind her a black woman wearing a cream loose-fitting dress holds a bunch of flowers wrapped in white paper above her lower legs. At the bottom of the bed near her feet is a black cat with an arched back and its tail raised in the shape of a reversed question mark. The background is a dark room with green curtains to the viewers left, patterned dark brown and gold wall covering and dark curtains to the right.

The woman looks out from the canvas directly at the viewer with a confident, slightly bored yet suggestive look. Her left hand is held firmly over her pubic region with the fingers tense and arched around her right upper leg. Underneath the painting are five lines of verse written by Manet’s friend and poet Zacharie Astruc. The verse includes the name Olympia and the description ‘the august young woman’[3].

The associations of the name Olympia in 1865 are perhaps relevant. It often claimed to be the name used by prostitutes but a list of pseudonyms compiled by Parent-Duchételet in 1836 shows that the French form ‘Olympe’ was more common than the classical Olympia. Olympe was a courtesan in Alexandre Dumas’s popular play La Dame aux camellias but perhaps more relevant, the name of the strong, brazen heroine in the very popular opera Herculanum by Félicien David. It was also the name of a famous renaissance courtesan Donna Olimpia Maldachini.

The obvious pictorial parallel for the critics to point out was with Titian’s Venus of Urbino. This picture has differences but is so strikingly similar in pose that it is surprising that no critics remarked on it, even if only to rebuke Manet for what they would consider a pastiche. There are many other similar paintings such as Titian’s Jupiter and Antiope (1535-40), Courbet’s Reclining Nude (1862), Goya’s The Naked Maja (c. 1800), Delacroix’s Odalisque (1847), Ingres Large Odalisque (1814) and even the women in the centre of Couture’s The Romans of the Decadence (1847). In fact, the model for the woman in the centre of Couture’s picture was the same woman as in Manet’s picture.

The model is now known to be Victorine Meurent, a model and artist that it is said Manet met while out walking in 1862. She was also a model for Thomas Couture between 1861 and 1863 and as Manet was a pupil in the same atelier between 1850 and 1856 it must also be possible that Couture introduced Manet to the model. Manet painted her portrait in 1862 and she looks much older, a fact that later critics put down to Manet painting her as she would look a decade later. When she first sat for Manet she is thought to have been 18 although no definite evidence exists and it is possible she was much older. In later life she had to prostitute herself and beg for a living to support her ill mother. Ironically in 1889, three years before she was last seen, Louis Lathuille, also one of Manet’s models, saw her begging outside a major Paris exhibition that included Olympia.

So why were the critics in 1865 unable to incorporate the picture within an analytical framework and criticize it for what it is within the context of what they knew? Some extracts give the flavour of the level of critical comment, ‘ignoble model picked up who knows where’[4], ‘neither true nor living nor beautiful’[5], and ‘she does not have a human form’[6]. The woman in the painting was described as a courtesan, Hottentot Venus, dirty yellow, a female gorilla, grotesque India rubber, an ape on a bed, and in summary the critics admitted they were unable to see or describe Olympia.

The picture was novel in a number of ways, painterly, psychological, in subject matter, and socially. Ironically, although Manet did not write directly about why he painted the way he did, from comments he made to friends it seems he wanted to be part of the establishment, he wanted to be accepted yet he also wanted to paint in a way he regarded as true. His truth created a disjunction between the acceptable and the unacceptable.

On a painterly level, nudes at the time, for example, all those mentioned above, were represented in a soft, subtle manner far removed from a photographic rendition of a naked woman. Manet moves closer to a harshly lit photographic studio representation with flat colours and hard dark edges. He replaced the typical light, hairless almost white skin of the typical nude with a yellow skin with signs of hair under the arm pits and between the navel and ribs. It is interesting that erotic photographs were becoming widely sold at the time and they often adopted the same pose (for example, She is Waiting, Achille Deveria, 1829).

Much has been made of the psychological ramifications of a naked woman looking straight out of the picture at the viewer. Typically, a viewer is able to examine a picture at leisure and therefore exerts a form of control and power over the picture and its subject matter. When the subject matter looks like a real woman rather than an abstract nude and she looks out of the picture straight at the viewer this removes a degree of power from the viewer and the picture, to some extent, takes control. At least the power balance between viewer and subject is changed. Manet was one of the first to achieve this and the results were clearly disturbing the voyeurism of the contemporary audience, or at least the male audience.

In terms of the subject matter the picture broke the ‘golden rule’ mentioned above that men should be able to tell the difference between a prostitute and an honest woman but a woman never should. The picture presents what to all viewers looks like a prostitute (whether she was or not at the time) and the existence of prostitution of the most basic kind was exposed. The most basic kind being the simple exchange of money for sex without the airs and graces of the high society courtesan.

Finally, as has already been stated, prostitution was regarded as a very serious social issue. The number of prostitutes was increasing sharply at all levels of society and many were unregistered. What started in the early 1800’s as a service for young, unmarried agricultural workers that had started work in the city had evolved into an uncontrolled industry across all levels of society. This much was known but the picture brings the fact home with an immediacy and relevance far removed from the typical idealised nude.

Today all these factors have been pushed much further than in 1865 so we see the picture in a different context yet even so the originality of the picture is demonstrated by the fact that it still has power and relevance. In 1865 the critics and the public were simply unable to cope with so many novel factors and so they were unable to categorize the picture and so were unable to analyze it or understand it in any context. They simply did not know what to say. The result varied from insults to open hostility and from insane laughter to violence.


Clark, T.J. The Paintings of Modern Life, Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (London: Thames & Hudson 1984, Revised Edition 1999)

Flescher S. ‘More on a Name: Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and the Defiant Heroine in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France’ Art Journal Vol. 45:1, (1985: Spring), pages 27-35

Friedrich, O. Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet (London: Aurum Press, 1992)

Hamilton G.H. ‘Manet and his Critics’ book review Art Bulletin Vol. 37, (1955), pages 149-150

Harris J.C. ‘A Little-Known Essay on Manet by Stéphane Mallarmé’ Art Bulletin Vol. 46:4, (1964:Dec.), pages 559-563

Howard S. ‘Early Manet and Artful Error: Foundations of Anti-Illusion in Modern Painting’ Art Journal Vol. 37:1, (1977:Fall), pages 14-21

Reff, T. Manet: Olympia (London: Allen Lane, Art in Context 1976, Series Editors J. Fleming & H. Honour)


[1] Parent-Duchételet, Prostitution dans la ville, 1:363

[2] Contemporary photographs of state purchases in the 1865 Salon are shown in T.J Clark’s book (see Bibliography), pages 118-119.

[3] Quand, lasse de songer, Olympias veille,
Le printemps entre au bras du doux messager noir;
C’est l’esclave, — la nuit amoureuse pareille,
Qui vient fleurir le jour délicieux — voir:
L’auguste jeune fille en qui la flame veille.

[4] Morizet, Du vieux Paris, p. 286

[5] Francis Aubert, Le Pays, Le Pays, 15 May

[6] Felix Deriége, Le Siecle, 2 June, pp 97-98


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