There are several stories behind Olympia. While Emile Zola praised the picture for its truthfulness, other critics derided it for its vulgarity. So intense was the public’s reaction that the picture had to be guarded. In place of an idealized, demure Venus, Manet presented a contemporary courtesan who faces the viewer openly, with neither shyness nor modesty.
The picture, an odalisque, has many antecedents. It quotes Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), which shows, in the forefront, a reclining nude who is beautiful and serene; in the background an opulent room recedes into space toward a Renaissance-like window. Two clothed women, possibly a noblewoman (mother) and a servant (young girl), peer into a cassone or wedding casket.
Another precedent is Goya’s dual version of his mistress similarly lying on a bed: Naked Maja and Clothed Maja (circa 1797-1800). While the convention is that the sleepy nude covers her genitals with one hand, Goya defies that expectation, showing Maja with both arms behind her head, as if in invitation, asserting she has nothing to hide.
In Manet’s case, “Olympia” is a place name (in Greek myth, Olympia is the home of the gods) and thus alludes to a goddess without naming her. Obviously a courtesan, Manet’s nude is compact and robust. Though well tended (e.g., the servant bearing flowers) she is not scrupulous about her appearance; in fact, her feet are dirty. The composition is divided vertically into two planes; a comparable division of motifs underlies the picture: the urban, independent woman who seems to be enslaved as a prostitute but obviously is free in her sexuality, and the darkness—background, maid, cat—that contrasts with the sparkling bed and the bright, alert figure. In Titian’s picture, the Venus is regal and languid; in Manet’s she is lowborn and bold. The Titian picture has a little dog, suggestive of fidelity; here, there’s a black cat that evokes both the actual city, Paris, and the mythic underworld that the flowers and attendant could also be part of.
The model for Olympia was Victorine Meurent, who often posed for Manet (Woman with a Parrot and Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of a Matador, both at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Le Dejuener sur l’Herbe at the Musée d’Orsay). Meurent started out as a musician and ended up as a painter. Meurent herself showed several works at the Salon, although only one of her pictures survives.
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