Famous Painters and Paintings: Manet's Olympia

About the famous painting Olympia by Manet, history and information about the artwork.


THE PAINTING: Olympia. She was a young girl named Victorine Meurand, and she had ducked into the Louvre to get out of the rain. There she bumped into Manet--and Manet's Olympia was born. Manet described Victorine to his Dutch wife, a piano teacher: "She is not strictly beautiful but she is like one of those macabre dwarfish demi-virgins in a Baudelaire poem." That was in 1860.

Three years later, inspired by Titian's Venus of Urbino and the unclothed Victorine, Manet posed her for his Olympia. He posed her stretched naked, reclining on the satin pillows of her bed, wearing nothing except a vivid flower in her hair, a black velvet ribbon around her throat, a gold bracelet on her arm, while an open-backed slipper graces one foot in the fashion of brothel harlots. Behind her, a black woman servant brings a client's gift of flowers. The picture was shockingly blatant.

It was not exhibited for 2 years, when it was finally submitted to the selection committee for the Salon of 1865. When the Salon opened on May 1st, visitors flocked to view the canvas, shouting, laughing, jeering, brandishing their fists and even spitting at it, and soon after the critics were also raising a storm of protest. "There she lies," roared Andre Gustave, "not as a pitiful whore, but as a triumphant and successful prostitute." Edgar Degas saw her and waved her off. "I look on her as on all women--as animals." In Le Grand Journal Amedee Cantaloube wrote, "Our eyes have never seen such a spectacle, nor one with a more cynical effect . . . Women who are about to become mothers, and young girls, would do well to avoid this sight if they are wise." This scandal made Manet more famous. But it was not the kind of fame for which he had longed. To the public he was nothing more than a "joker," a "humbug," drawing attention to himself by any means at his disposal. The objections were, 1st of all, to the subject--which was considered indecent--but to an even greater extent to the frank manner in which the work was painted and also to the vibrant and sharply contrasted colors.

"Every painter in Paris turned up at the Manet exhibition," wrote a critic. "They all went wild with laughter."

Manet was in the habit of visiting a cafe in the Grande Rue des Batignolles that soon became a rendezvous for his admirers. Among them were Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir--and out of them came the color theories of Impressionism.

In his later years Manet finally received some public recognition. A number of his paintings were accepted for the Salon and one or 2 were even awarded medals.

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