Manet’s Olympia: the big art scandal of 1800’s Europe

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There were days when people had a completely different opinion of him, but what moves Édouard Manet has always been the desire to break with tradition, a rebellious artistic spirit, the imperative of introducing something new. Already in the six years spent at the Parisian atelier of the respected Thomas Couture, where Manet entered at the age of twenty, the contrasts were numerous, and the young artist made several trips in order to broaden his views. In one of those journeys, in 1853 in Florence, he studied Titian’s Venus of Urbino. A few years later, from that painting he indirectly gave birth to the greatest act of rupture of his life. But when it happened, very few acknowledged it: on the contrary, everybody defined him a vulgar provocator, with a rude style, who only wanted people to talk about him. But we’ll get there in a minute.

Titian, VVenus of Urbino, 1538, Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Manet left Couture atelier in 1856. At that time, there was only one thing that an artist could want in Paris: to see his art recognized at the Salon, the great biennial exhibition that could give wide visibility to the emerging artists, which unfortunately was controlled by a jury that often preferred traditional works over modern ones. Manet was everything but traditional, and probably the numerous denials received from the Salon did nothing else than fuel its unconformity. At some point they inaugurated the Salon des Refusés, a parallel exhibition aimed to collect the paintings rejected by the main salon, and Manet didn’t wait a minute: he showed up with his famous Luncheon on the Grass, shocking the audience for that female nude that suddenly was not applied to a Mythological character, nor to a classical god. The accusations were very harsh. American critic P. G. Hamerton said: “Here is a wretched French painter who translated the idea of immorality into the language of modern French realism, and with the horrible French costume of today. […] The nude, when painted by a vulgar man, is inevitably indecent.”

As an answer, the year after Manet painted Olympia.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d’Orsay in Paris

The reference to the painting made more than three centuries earlier by Titian was clear to everybody, and so was the precise desire to disrupt the traditional artistic canons. The subject of Titian comes from mythology, she covers the pubis with modesty and her gaze is benevolent; Manet’s subject, instead, was a Parisian prostitute, the hand is laid defiantly and her cold eyes look the spectator, turning him suddenly into a guest, imposing a distance that can be reduced only after payment. The handmaids painted on the right by Titian are looking for the noblest dress to be worn by the goddess; the black servant portrayed by Manet is showing flowers, probably received by a client, and she’s ignored by the prostitute, showing the absence of any emotional connection with the world. On the bed painted by Titian we can see a dog, symbol of fidelity; at the feet of Manet’s prostitute there is a black cat, symbol of independence. The dimension also contributed to accentuate the message: one metre and thirty high and almost two meters large, much bigger than Titian’s Venus, proportions that were usually used for mythological or religious representations.

Manet had practically everyone against him. His true intention was to break with traditions and give new dignity to the real world, but Parisian realism was seen as a blasphemy by the academics of that time, and Manet was marked as a vulgar, second-class artist. One of the very few who defended him was Emile Zola, his great friend and admirer, who in 1867 described Olympia in his Mon Salon. With these words:

“This canvas is the vertitable flesh and the blood of the painter, the most characteristic example of his talent, his greatest achievement. […] At first sight one is aware of only two tones in the picture – two violently contrasting tones. Moreover, all details have disappeared… Everything is simplified, and if you want to reconstruct reality, move back a few paces. Then a strange thing happens – each object falls into correct relation. Accuracy of vision and simplicity of handling have achieved this miracle. The artist has worked in the same manner as Nature, in large, lighly coloured masses, in large areas of light, and his work has the slightly crude and austere look of Nature itself.

What does all this amount to – you scarcely know, no more do I. But I know that you have succeeded admirably in doing a painter’s job, the job of a great painter…

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Édouard Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola, 1868, Musée d’Orsay in Paris

Zola’s words were still premature, and they weren’t enough to lift the figure of Manet from the reputation of a good taste offender, reputation which remained sticked to him until his death. When he died in 1883, the first to acknowledge him was Edgar Degas, who stood up at the funeral and said “he was greater than what we all thought.” Some time later Renoir said about him: “Manet was as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto for Italian Renaissance”, to demonstrate the gratitude of Impressionism to its first inspirer. Zola, with his great artistic sensibility, was simply one of those who understood him first, and against all the others.

A few years after Zola’s defence of Olympia, Manet returned the esteem with his famous portrait: almost a photograph, which exalted the writer’s culture, surrounding him with Japanese books and prints. At the top of the wall we can see a print of Olympia, just below Velázquez’s Feast of Bacchus, one of the common passions for Zola and Manet. In representing the noble figure of Zola, Manet in fact marked the authority of his own name.

Manet gave the portrait to Zola, as a gift. The legend has it that Zola was not completely satisfied with that painting, hanging it on the lower wall of a corridor.

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