What upset everybody so much ? It may be that she seems so unaffected herself. She stares placidly at the viewer, putting us in the uneasy role of client to an alluring, if bored – looking, whore. Manet inhabited a world in which it was generally assumed that a woman existed to nurture, comfort, inspire or arouse, all in relation to her place in society and family. But Olympia, for all her blatant accessibility, is tantalizingly self – sufficient. There ‘s nothing supplicating or humble about her. To the wealthy collectors of art and women, who regarded both as possessions, Olympia stripped them of their illusions. Her body is ripe for the taking, but everything else, including the meaning behind that enigmatic almost – smile, she ‘s keeping for herself.
For all the great paintings in the history of art, few show a woman whose gaze is so startlingly direct and defiantly unaccommodating. Mona Lisa shyly glances to her left. So does Vermeer ‘s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Botticelli’s Venus looks out dreamily into the middle distance, lost in her own thoughts, while Sargent’s Madame X turns her head away completely. And scores of Virgin Marys glance rapturously up at the angels or tenderly down at their babes.
When a woman does face front in a painting, it’s likely to be a portrait of a queen, not a canvas of a concubine. Olympia meets us eye to eye. It ‘s an ingenious and unsettling device, a bit of artist ‘s revenge. The image in the frame is the one doing the sizing up, and it is we who are left feeling appraised — and potentially rejected. The critics, unaccustomed to having the tables so turned on them, were quick to serve up rejections of their own. They hated the subject matter. They hated the flat, primitive style. They hated everything about it.
What’s this yellow-bellied Odalisque, this vile model picked up who knows where, and who represents Olympia? demanded one writer. Inconceivable vulgarity, declared another, while yet another proclaimed that art sunk so low does not even deserve reproach. note: ;
The woman was real enough. Name – Victorine Meurent, his engraver ‘s daughter, possibly his lover, viewed as a prostitute or worse, a particular woman. In the studio, — Dejeuner’ was nicknamed La Partie Caree, (double date / penetration), Olympia faced the wall.
Victorine Meurant was a painter. On return from America, she set up her own studio. In 1876 had a painting in the salon, then in 1879 was hung next to Manet. It was downhill thereafter. In 1890, she was painted with a guitar in one hand and a bottle in the other. George Moore saw her playing cards at a friend ‘s flat in Montmartre, — The women caught each other by the hair and tore at each other ‘s faces. Everybody snatched at the money within reach and, calling each other thieves, they struggled through the door. Arkell, David La Vie De Victorine, P 9/10, PN Review 113, 1997.
Carree means square as in Nime ‘s Maison Carree or Square House
Partie carree is used in Forster’s Room with a View about the vicar ‘s tea party.