Great Art Bad Reviews Edouard Manet's Olympia

About Edouard Manet's Olympia, a great work of art which was originally given bad reviews.


Manet's Olympia

The Work: French painter Edouard Manet completed Olympia in 1863, and it was exhibited at the Salon of 1865. It depicts an elegant reclining nude, her face turned toward the viewer; behind her is a black servant holding a bouquet of flowers; on her bed is a black cat.

The Critics Speak: The showing of Olympia caused an outburst of angry public opinion and critical scorn. Manet's use of color and tone was unusual, which bothered the critics, but far worse was the moral threat his art seemed to pose to 1890s society. As George Hamilton has observed, "Olympia was obviously naked rather than conventionally nude." Further, her head was not averted to indicate she was ashamed, and she was clearly no wood nymph being chased by a satyr (always an acceptable presentation of a nude). Olympia was shockingly modern.

Wrote Felix Jahyer: "Such indecency! It seems to me that Olympia c ould have been hung at a height out of range of the eye." Jahyer got his wish, because Olympia was eventually moved.

Jules Claretie's review in L'Artiste was equally scathing: "What is this Odalisque with a yellow stomach, a base model picked up I know not where, who represents Olympia? Olympia? What Olympia? A courtesan, no doubt."

Even the poet Theophile Gautier had nothing but harsh words for the painting in the Moniteur: "Olympia can be understood from no point of view, even if you take it for what it is, a puny model stretched out on a sheet. The color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling nonexistent. . . . We would still forgive the ugliness, were it only truthful, carefully studied, heightened by some splendid effect of color. The least beautiful woman has bones, muscles, skin, and some sort of color. Here there is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price."

History Speaks: Manet, now fully acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, considered Olympia his masterpiece. It hangs today in a place of honor in the Louvre.

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