Olympia & Other Venuses

A painting made the generation of art historians and critics to rethink the prevalent discourses on the history of the ‘nudes’ in Western art especially contemporary French painting in the nineteenth century and created great stir and uproar at the salon in Paris. A single painting attracted so much negative and as well as the destructive attention that the Salon authority had to reposition it to a less accessible position from its academic counterparts. Today this painting is venerated as one of the earliest of its genre to incorporate the aspects of voyeuristic male gaze and its immediate transaction. Eduard Manet’s ‘Olympia’, a masterpiece now, thus had a history of overwhelmingly negative reaction. But what are the reasons that caused this kind of unwanted negative impact! The bourgeois, the general Salon attendees had been trained to look at nudes and it had its own genre from the classical times of Greek antiquity. Various gods and goddesses and demigods from the mythological origins thus usually represented in this genre. So what actually went wrong for ‘Olympia’?

Before discussing the reaction it is necessary to understand the scenario in 1865 in terms of the socio-cultural environment of the Salon.  Returning to France, Napoleon III established the second Empire in 1852 following the revolution of 1848 and was motivated to make his mark rapidly in the era of industrial progression, the new railways, new inventions, such as photography, and overseas expansion. However, the public was accustomed to see nudes and as a matter of fact it was a popular genre of painting by then; having said so, each year numbers of nude paintings were get selected to be exhibited at the Salon. In the year 1865 itself, along with Olympia, Louis Lamothe’s L’Origine du dessin, Louis-Frédéric Schutzenberger’s Europe enlevée par Jupiter, Firmin Girard’s Le Sommeil de Vénus, Felix-Henri Giacomotti’s L’Enlévement d’Amymone and Joseph-Victor Ranvier’s L’Enfance de Bacchus were also exhibited. But there’s a catch. Each of this paintings was typically idealized and set in an Arcadian realm. The attendees at the Salon were aware of the fact that the characters in those images are not real, unlike Olympia, who stared back at the viewers to question their covert morality. As a matter of fact, the ‘uncouth’, ‘corpse-like’ image of a prostitute was less expected to the Salon attendees.

There was a resurgence of movements like socialism and communism in 19th Century Paris, but the new bourgeoisie was sexually repressed which erupted into professions like prostitution into all levels of social structure. Same situation is echoed in the words of Parent-Duchâtelet: “We will have arrived at the limit of perfection…if we arrange it so that men…can distinguish those [prostitutes] from honest women; but that those women, and especially their daughters, cannot make this distinction…” The rise of prostitution concerned the bourgeoisie that the society was being demoralized from within. Prostitution thus gave women a kind of power, the ultimate transaction of selling the body for money that placed them in all quarters of society. And the name ‘Olympia’ itself was quite common in this profession; thus placing Manet’s painting from a ‘mythology-wrapped nude’ to a socially real character. That was much to make the public uncomfortable to see that painting!

Figure 1: Olympia, painted in 1863, exhibited at the salon in 1865

As a popular genre of paintings Nudes were always predominant in the Salon. However, it was the subject matter that constructed viewer’s notion of the image. From Titian and Giorgione to Giocometti, to Bougeroue and Cabanel, everyone painted female nudes (This genre of Nudes can be traced back to the Renaissance and mostly in the Nuditas Virtualis of Mannerism that gave rise to the profound latent eroticism in the disguise of Nude Virtue) but all incorporated the mythical fantasy that the viewer’s get to observed thus traditional representations of the nude put woman on display for the pleasure of a spectator presumed to be male, however the male viewer also understand the image is not from a real world, never invading his private space- creates no objection. As John Berger has observed, “almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal-either literally or metaphorically because the sexual protagonist is the spectator, owner looking at it.“(Ways of Seeing, 1972). This reading can be observed in the works of above-mentioned artists who had painted various versions of nude figures of Venus. Venus, being the Roman goddess of love and fertility was always been a favorite among the artists to portray, to portray the ideal beauty of humanistic values of classical antiquity. It is now much talked about how Manet was heavily influenced by Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and produced Olympia. However, genre wise they may have similarities but in terms of incorporation of the subject matter they simply diverse. In both paintings the figure had been modeled after a prostitute, however, Titian’s Nude was wrapped in the mythical veil of the ideal beauty of Venus, whereas Manet’s Olympia shocked the viewer’s for its utmost realistic depiction.

Figure 2: Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538

At the time of debut of ‘Venus of Urbino’ in 1583, Titian was a renowned Italian artist so the controversy was minimal. He had actually based his painting on another nude Venus figure, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. Giorgione’s painting depicts a nude female sleeping in nature, among the hilly mountainous countryside and the influence of this painting on Titian is quite visible.

Figure 3: Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, 1510

The elongated stretched torso (fig 3) and overtly sensuous pose wrapped in the veil of ideal beauty, where the background doesn’t correspond to the figure in any context, merely acted as a backdrop. Titian took this image and made some modification to the gesture of the right arm and transplanted inside a bedroom. This Venus, however, is not sleeping. She is in a posture of casual relaxation, gazes indirectly at the viewers in quiet coyness. However, this typical look in her face can almost be read as a welcoming gesture. She’s pretty much aware of the fact that she is being looked at and also calling out more attention from the male viewers. This “ethereal character of Venus gazing out so dreamily” drew viewers back to “medieval romance” and fantasy (Barolsky). Thus Titian’s Venus is alluring in her soft, indulgent beauty. From a perspective of formal analysis, the painting is composed of subtle brush strokes, done in minute detail.  The warm, glowing tone of her skin invites, while her adverted gaze depicts a kind of curiosity. Although the painting is centered on the nude Venus, compositionally it is divided in half by the background. A black and green backdrop frames Venus’s upper body, further accentuating her elongated torso.  Whereas, her legs are relatively short in proportion, and feet are tiny in size. The background display a separate room behind the couch, where Two servants bend over a chest, apparently searching for garments (Renaissance households stored clothing in carved wooden chests called cassoni) to clothe “Venus.” Beyond them, a smaller view opens into a landscape.


Figure 4: TheBirthh of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, 1862

Not so long before Olympia made the impact on the salon-goers, In 1862 French academic painter Alexandre Cabanel painted ‘The Birth of Venus’ and received significant acclaim at the 1862 Paris Salon and was purchased by Napoleon III himself.  The painting depicts a nude Venus reclining across the surface of ocean waves and surrounded by cupids, dancing in the midair and hovering over the figure of Venus. Her eyes are half closed and the body is stretched in a sensuous posture. The influence of fellow French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the Rococo color palette are strongly evident in this painting. And unlike Manet, Cabanel didn’t disturb general mass’s viewing experience of nudes.

Figure 5: The Birth of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, 1862

Another academic portrayal of Venus is ‘The Birth of Venus’ (1879) by 19th-century academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This iconic painting had received great praising. Unlike the typical landscape format of his predecessors, Bouguereau painted his Venus in a standing posture in a vertical framework. The loose influence of Botticelli’s Venus can be seen. In this painting, Venus stands nude elegantly in an “S” curve contrapposto, emphasizing the feminine curves of her body, on a scallop shell which is pulled by a dolphin. Fifteen putti, including Cupid and Psyche, and several nymphs and centaurs have gathered to witness her arrival. Most of the figures are gazing at her, and two of the centaurs are blowing into conch and Triton shells. Venus’s facial expression is calm, comfortable with her nudity. She raises her arms, arranging her thigh-length, red hair further accentuating her feminine sensuousness.

The word scandal traced back to the Greek word ‘skandalon’, which means “trap, snare, and stumbling block.” As a matter of fact, the viewers of Olympia at the 1865 salon reacted as if they were trapped by this provocative scandalous image. Indeed, the bourgeois public took much offense at this apparent confrontation of morality that the painting had to be rehung high up at the Salon wall. But what exactly the pictorial elements in case of Olympia that caused so much of uproar? Unlike other paintings on Venus that we have seen above, Olympia was not adverting her eyes from the viewers. Her gaze was direct and challenging, captivating the viewers, her posture was rigid and upright. Another interesting factor which is less talked about is the particular stance of her left hand, firmly covering her genitals. This particular gesture of hand has indeed a name: ‘Pudica pose’ which can be traced back to Greek antiquity, in the works of Praxiteles who was the first sculptor to introduce this posture in the context of Venus portraiture. In this posture, an unclothed female (either standing or reclining- in most cases Venus portraiture) keeps one hand covering her private parts. The resultant pose – which is not, incidentally, applicable to the male nude – is somewhat asymmetrical and often serves to draw one’s eye to the very spot being hidden!

The word “Pudica” comes to us by way of the Latin “pudendus”, which can mean either external genitalia or shame, or both simultaneously. If we look back to the images of Venus we have seen earlier, in each case, the posture of the hand or say the pudica pose rather directs one’s gaze towards the genital that the hand is covering and also the hand seemed to be loosely placed, further conveying a sense of submission of the female figure to the male audience. However, in Olympia, it is quite opposite. The left hand is firmly posed on the lap. Interestingly, one might observe the use of less modeling throughout the figure but relatively much modeling in the hands further accentuating the fact that Olympia is very much aware that she’s being looked at and simultaneously challenging her onlookers! Manet further accompanied this rigidity of Olympia with quick, large brushstrokes. The strokes were visible on the painting itself, showing directionality of the brush. Artists of the past were careful not to leave brushstrokes, as these were considered imperfections. In fact, Titian might have covered Venus of Urbino with as many as nine layers of paint, to create her smooth, soft portrait. Interestingly, instead of drawing the audience in, Olympia has apparently repelled the viewers. Olympia also lacked color in many ways, as its primary tones were black and white. However, this blatant contrast in the painting brings vivid attention to the figure of Olympia while contrasting the black servant and black cat in the background. The black servant attending to her was not in the foreground, but just merely situated behind Olympia, presenting her a bouquet of flowers. The flowers interestingly enough were positioned not towards Olympia’s line of vision, as they “were not meant for Olympia’s eyes, but for the viewer’s eyes and edification” (Mitchell). As a matter of fact, the audience was Olympia’s suitor, her customer, and these flowers were a present and needed approval from the sender.

In “Olympia’s Choice,” The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers’, T.J Clark, wrote, “A nude…is a picture for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of somebody else’s desire. Nothing I go on to say about Olympia is meant to suggest that Manet’s painting escapes that wider determination, or even escaped it once upon a time, in the 1865 Salon. It was meant as a nude and finally taken as one; the texts I have collected should not be read as so many indices of defeat in that project, but, rather, for signs of difficulty surmounted….. Olympia is depicted as nude and courtesan, but also as naked and insoumise; the one identity is the form of the other, but the two are put together in such a way as to make each contingent and unfinished. The case is particularly clear when it comes to the picture’s obvious main subject: Olympia’s beauty, her sexual power, and how that relates to her body’s being female.” Interestingly, in the same text, Clack argues some of the allegations that made by some viewers and critics; he further wrote, “it was already in 1865– that Olympia is not female at all, or only partly so. She is masculine or “masculinized”; she is “boyish,” aggressive, or androgynous. None of these words strikes me as the right one, but they all indicate quite well why the viewer is uncertain. It is because he cannot easily make Olympia a Woman that he wants to make her a man; she has to be something less or more or otherwise aberrant. This seems to me wrongheaded: surely Olympia’s sexual identity is not in doubt; it is how it belongs to her that is the problem.” Obviously, the sexual identity of Olympia was not in scrutiny but her strong ‘manly’ aggressive ‘gaze’ becomes the root to all problems. Clark added, “They (the viewers) were offered an outward gaze: a pair of jet-black pupils, a slight asymmetry of the lids, a mouth with a curiously smudged and broken corner, features half adhering to the plain oval of the face. A look was thus constructed which seemed direct and reserved, in a way which was close to the classic face of the nude. It was close, but so is parody. This is not a look which is generalized or abstract or evidently “feminine.” It appears to be blatant and particular, but it is also unreadable, perhaps deliberately so. It is candid but guarded, poised between address and resistance –so precisely, so deliberately, that it comes to be read as a production of the depicted person herself; there is an inevitable conflation of the qualities of precision and contrivance in the way the image is painted and those qualities as belonging to the fictive subject; it is her look, her action upon us, her composition of herself.” The ongoing debate over the particular painting will never end. Scholars have discussed again and again but the aura that it created in the history of western art is unparalleled. In this juncture, I would like to mention the text that was initially written beside the painting by Manet himself. Manet added five lines of unforgivable verse by Zacharie Astruc:

“Quand, lasse de songer, Olympia leveille,

Le printemps entre au bras du doux messager noir;

C’est l’esclaue, a la nuit arnoureuse pareille,

Qui oieru fleurir le jour delicieux ii voir:

L’auguste jeune flUe en qui la fiamme oeille.”

In a letter to his friend Baudelaire, Manet mentioned, “The insults rain down on me like hail…” Yet while many looked upon Olympia as a symbol of depravity or a slattern, others recognized her as a triumph. The writer Émile Zola called it Manet’s “masterpiece,” declaring, “It will endure as the characteristic expression of his talent, as the highest mark of his power … When other artists correct nature by painting Venus they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?”

Is she naked? Is she nude? She is sexually obtainable, more so than Titian’s Venus, which in turn is more so obtainable than the Venus in Giorgione’s version; yet Olympia repels her viewers with the utmost strictness of her gaze. As far as the female viewers are concerned, it may be this refusal reflected in the gaze of her, those particularly female viewers today, identifying- Olympia’s defiant look and gazing through the pictorial surface at the discomforted male spectator whose desire it confounds, appreciate most in Olympia’s representation. To conclude, I want to lend Clark’s words, “nakedness is a strong sign of class, a dangerous instance of it. And thus the critics’ reaction in 1865 becomes more comprehensible. They were perplexed by the fact that Olympia’s class was nowhere but in her body: the cat, the Negress, the orchid, the bunch of flowers, the slippers, the pearl earrings, the choker, the screen, the shawl they were all lures, they all meant nothing or nothing in particular. The naked body did without them in the end and did its own narrating.”