Essay Olympia Painting

Manet's Olympia Essay

Edouard Manet : Olympia

In 1863 Edouard Manet painted one of the most controversial pieces of art the world has ever seen. Manet's painting was entitled Olympia. For years many have seen it as a joke and others a masterpiece. Discussion of the painting has included lines that look elementary, dull color, poor subject matter, and unexplainable meanings. Others feel that the simple lines, lifeless color, unique subject matter, and various meanings make the painting one of the best in the world. Although peoples' views differ no one is to say right from wrong. Anyone's interpretation of this artwork is as unique and individual as one's own personality. The way that someone views any piece of art depends on their personal experience. Olympia inhabits many aspects of creativity that some flock to while others run.

The painting's lines differentiate throughout the painting. Olympia herself has an outlined look, this makes her look two dimensional. Using this type of contour line makes her look very flat. Olympia, however, is the only object in this painting like this. Other lines used allow the painting to flow. For instance the curtain in the background looks graceful as well as the pillows and sheets in the foreground. Its amazing how Manet made the indentation on both the pillows and the sheets. Detail is also expressed greatly. The wallpaper and curtain designs look very stylized, even though they are both different colors, they seem related because of the pattern in them. The flowers are also very detailed. The lines of the flowers allow them to be seen individually instead of collectively. Also the same flowers seen in the bouquet held by the servant can be seen in the blanket Olympia is sitting on. Another attention to detail is Olympia's bracelet and necklace. The lines within these two objects allow us to see the style of her jewelry, therefore giving us a clearer picture of the subject. The lines that make up Olympia's body show us her intimately. The lines create a shape that is common to most women's anatomy, therefore showing us that everyone can look beautiful in their own way. Olympia inhabits a very elegant look because of the easy flowing lines of her body and jewelry. The hard and sharp lines in the background of the wall and lower bed make us realize the rounder shapes of the body. The crisp line of the wall against her shapely body show us the difference between the two objects. The importance of the lines in this painting make it both interesting and intriguing. They bring the lifeless objects of the painting together with the living, beautiful beings around...

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The work was submitted to the 1865 Salon and amazingly, despite its shocking content, was accepted for inclusion in the show. Perhaps the Academy jury feared another Salon des Refuses if it was rejected. At any rate, the painting was put on public display and, predictably, caused an uproar, being quickly dubbed "Venus with a Cat", "Odalisque with a yellow stomach", "Female Gorilla" and worse. The disconcerted judges had the picture 'sky-ed' (placed on the uppermost line of paintings), so that it could not be seen very easily.

Interestingly, Manet kept this canvas till his death, and considered it his masterpiece. In 1889, some six years after his death, it was offered to the French Nation by public subscription organised through the initiative of Claude Monet, price 19,415 francs. It became part of the Luxembourg collection in 1890, before being transferred in 1907 to the Louvre, where it was hung opposite La Grande Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D.Ingres, in the Salle des Etats. It is now on display at the Musee d'Orsay.

For other figure paintings by Manet, see: Portrait of Emile Zola (1868); The Balcony (1868) and Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872).


It is well known that Manet based the composition on Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538), itself based on Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (1510). It is almost all there: the general position of the young woman, the pillow propping her up, the drapery that creeps under her right hand, her left hand covering and at the same time flagging the pudenda. But, if both nudes look at the viewer, then they do so in utterly different ways. Titian's goddess is seductive and beckons one into the picture's world. In contrast, Manet's Olympia, whose head is raised in an attitude of challenge that verges on provocation, fends one off. Manet has also replaced the dog (symbol of fidelity) with a cat (symbol of promiscuity), while the two maids in the background are reduced to just one, who is black, and infinitely more present and conspicuous in her gaudy get-up, weighed down by a bouquet that competes for attention with Olympia's naked display. Manet is saying that the flowers and the cat are as interesting as the nude. As for the trenchant vertical that in the Titian version bisects the backdrop to the picture and forms a line that falls plumb on the sitter's sex, Manet has shifted it enough to the right in Olympia to ensure a disconnection

In effect, by refusing to idealize her, indeed, by making her as undesirable as possible - the harsh lighting and off-white skin further diminishes her desirability - Manet is deliberately undermining the tradition of academic art and its old-fashioned principles, which he believed had no part in a progressive arts regime, in a modern France.

NOTE: In 1800, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya painted a very similar nude entitled Maja Desnuda (Naked Maja), for the Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Godoy. Given his interest in the Spanish School, it is almost certain that Manet borrowed from this work.

Explanation of Other French Paintings

• A Burial at Ornans (1850) by Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

• The Artist's Studio (1855) by Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

• The Road-Menders, Rue de Berne (1878) by Edouard Manet.
Private Collection.

• A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-2) by Edouard Manet.
Courtauld Gallery, London.

• The Ballet Class (1871-4) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

• Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

• Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.


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