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Manet and his Olympia

"The tone of the flesh is dirty, the modeling is, we are sorry to say, there is nothing but the desire to attract attention at all costs." This review by Théophile Gautier in the Moniteur Universel of June 24, 1865 settled the account, or so he thought, of the Olympia that Edouard Manet presented at the Salon the same year.

Camille Pissarro Bazincourt, effet de neige. Coucher du soleil, 1892, Huile sur toile, 32 x 41 cm, Hasso Platner Collection / Sammlung Hasso Plattner
Edouard Manet. Olympia. 1865. Musée d'Orsay.© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Edouard Manet painted his Olympia in 1863. Despite the strong references to the Venus of Urbino that Manet had copied in Italy in 1853, the painting caused a resounding scandal, even more than the "Déjeuner sur l'herbe" rejected by the jury of the Salon of 1863.

Georgette Agutte. Bord de Seine à l'Automne. Vers 1890. Musée de Grenoble.
Titien. Vénus d'Urbin. 1538. Galerie des Offices Florence.

The pose is similar, the gaze turned towards the spectator, with modesty in Titian, directly in Manet, which was immediately perceived as the provocation of a prostitute, even if she was a luxury one. The dog, symbol of fidelity, is replaced by a black cat with shining eyes which evokes lechery. The servants busying themselves at the background of Titian's canvas give way in Manet to a black maid carrying a bouquet wrapped in crumpled paper.

Théophile Gautier continues: "... and what about the negress... and the cat that leaves the imprint of its muddy paws on the bed."

The two women only wear a bracelet, with the added bonus of a choker for Olympia.

Same languid pose, but this time with eyes closed for the painting by Gorgione, painted in 1510, which is said to have been completed by Titian, who was his student.

Georgette Agutte. Le Café dans le jardin. Musée de Grenoble.
Vénus endormie. Gorgione - Titien. Vers 1510. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. Dreden

When you look closely at these women, you can't help wondering about the role assigned to their left hand... if the aim of the artists was only to hide their sex, why would the fingers of the Venuses be folded down, evoking something quite different? The softest one is likely the one painted by Manet...

Manet's Olympia, which some in the Salon audience tried to break through with an umbrella, nevertheless found some defenders, and not the least. Thus, Emile Zola, wrote in the review of the 19th century, January 1, 1867:

"I said masterpiece, and I do not withdraw the word. I claim that this canvas is truly the flesh and blood of the painter, and that he will never do it again. It is the full expression of his temperament; it contains it entirely and only contains it. It will remain as the characteristic work of his talent, as the highest mark of his power, as the measure of his strength.

I read in it the personality of Édouard Manet, and when I analyzed the artist himself, I only had before my eyes this canvas which contains all the others."

In 1890, 7 years after Manet's death, Claude Monet launched a subscription to buy the Olympia from Suzanne Leenhoff, his widow, who asked for 20,000 francs. After many adventures, the painting entered the Musée du Luxembourg, then the Louvre, the Jeu de Paume and finally, in 1986, the Musée d'Orsay, where it is currently located.

In his art history lectures, Fabrice Roy combines the past with the present, in a poetic and playful evocation of the French 19th century...


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