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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #41: Shock Art: Edouard Manet's Olympia

Among some groups, there’s this stereotype of French citizens. You’ve no doubt heard them time and again-- you’ve heard that French waiters are snooty, for example, or that they don’t ever get work done because they are taking 4-hour, wine-infused gourmet meal breaks multiple times a day. I’ll be the first to tell you that, in my multiple trips through France (including a stint studying abroad), I never once was treated rudely by wait staff, and I witnessed plenty of business people dropping into a small cafe for a quick snack as opposed to a long dinner break. Regardless, these thoughts do persist. And one of those thoughts is that the French are way okay with extramarital affairs and that every man has a mistress. In fact, a great article on the website Salon a few years back that said--of course-- that this is a vastly overblown image of relationships in modern France. Even so, we are still enamored with these visions of France-- especially Paris--that stem from our turn-of-the century, romantic concepts of the Moulin Rouge,  can-can dancers, suave Frenchmen and the City of Love and Lights, but it’s often strange to understand that, in the mid-19th century, France was as staunchly Victorian in their mores as… well, the Victorians in England. And so it was a huge, huge shock when one single painting by Edouard Manet burst onto the scene in 1865 and brought sex--and lots of other things-- boiling up to the surface of a very unprepared Paris.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are continuing our all-new season of episodes dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that scandalized all of Paris with a shocking update of an art historical masterpiece-- we’re looking at Edouard Manet’s Olympia. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

We’ve discussed French painter Edouard Manet a couple of times in past episodes of the ArtCurious Podcast-- first, we tackled his relationship with another artist-- Berthe Morisot, in episode 14. We also touched on his friendship with Edgar Degas, and their intense falling-out, in our “art rivalries” season earlier this year. But today, we’re doing something a little different-- we’re diving deep into the creation of one of Manet’s most infamous works, a piece that still garners attention and whispers from art-lovers and tourists alike when they view it today at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. But first, let’s get a little background refresher on Manet.

Edouard Manet was born in Paris, on January 23, 1832, the first son of Auguste Manet, a high-ranking civil servant in the Ministry of Justice, and Eugenie-Desiree Fournier, the daughter of a French diplomat posted to Stockholm. There will be no story of the poor, struggling artist here, because Manet’s family was an upper-class family with strong political connections and the cash to back him in his chosen career— which wasn’t originally going to be art at all. His first dream was to become a high-ranking naval officer, but it turns out that Manet wasn’t a very promising student. Teachers at his secondary school called his work quote “wholly inadequate,” and when he attempted to pass the entrance exam to the Naval Academy, he totally bombed it. Nevertheless, he’s committed to the life of the sea, and so he secured a spot on a training ship bound for Rio de Janeiro at age 16. When the ship returned to France the following year, he attempted the entrance exam for the Naval Academy again, but no dice. Surely that was a really depressing time for Edouard Manet, but he did make lemonade out of those lemons, and thought back to the many drawings and caricatures that he made of officers aboard the training ship. Why not try for a career in art instead? With his parents’ reluctant blessing (and their funds, too), Manet gave the life of a painter a shot. I think we can all agree now that this was a pretty good idea.

Edouard Manet spent the next decade of his life doing the typical things that a 19th-century artist would do. He first enrolled as a student on the register of copyists working in the Louvre, and then moved on to some more official training via the studio of the academic painter Thomas Couture. But it seems that this time period left Manet with some uncertainty, and he frequently complained to Couture and his fellow students, saying, quote, "I don't know what I'm doing here.” Nevertheless, those complaints were all for naught, because Manet didn’t leave— in fact, he ended up staying under Couture’s tutelage for six whole years. During that time, he also took a trip to Italy with his younger brother, Eugene, and he had an extremely productive time in Florence, where he made copies of various works by old master painters, such as Fra Filipino Lippi, and, most tellingly, Titian’s masterpiece, Venus of Urbino, a seductive nude that made a very important, very lasting impression on him.

By 1859, Manet was feeling confident enough in his abilities, at age 27, to submit a painting to the Paris Salon— the most important art exhibition of the year, and probably the most important art exhibition of all Europe at that time. We’ve talked a little bit about Paris Salon on this show in the past, suffice to say that this was one HUGE art exhibition, in terms of its power in the art world. More than huge, actually— anyone who was anyone attempted to be seen in and at the Salon, and it was important enough that artists from other countries even tried to break into it. In 1859, Manet presented a work modeled after the style of the great Spanish master Diego Velazquez, a piece called The Absinthe Drinker. This was to become Manet’s first great painting and shows the artist delving headfirst into that Modernist obsession— the street. Life of those who spent their time in the streets— prostitutes, vagabonds, the destitute— that was so fascinating to 19th century poets, writers, and artists, who felt that they most truly represented what life was all about, rather than those with stuffy upper-class mores. It’s entirely possible that its lowbrow subject matter may been one of the reasons that The Absinthe Drinker was rejected by the Paris Salon.  No doubt this was a considerable blow to Manet, but like a moth to a flame, he kept at it, going back year after year with the intent on breaking through to the highest echelon of artistic achievement. In 1861, for example, he was admitted to the Salon, and one of his works, called The Spanish Singer, was even awarded an honorable mention. This is it! He made it, right? Well, at one of the next calls for the Salon, every single painting he proposed was denied outright once more.

Sometimes I wonder how much this ongoing snubbing played into the development of two of Manet’s most fascinating and surprising works of art-- his 1863 Dejeuner sur l’herbe, or Luncheon on the Grass in English, and our artwork of the day, his iconic Olympia from that same year. Maybe he was mad about being rejected again and again, and so specifically sought to create works meant to incite shock or anger. But then again, probably not-- because Edouard Manet wasn’t the only artist being snubbed by the Paris Salon repeatedly. So many artists rejected, in fact, that Napoleon III, head of the Second French Empire, decreed that an art exhibition be formed specifically for these artists, called the Salon des Refusés. And it was there that Manet showed these two shocking works of art, both of which are the perfect showcases, by the way, of Manet’s status as art history nerd.  Both of his composition are deft quotings of famous Renaissance works of art-- Luncheon referring to three figures from a lost work by Raphael called The Judgment of Paris, known primarily today via an engraving after it by Marcantonio Raimondi. It’s also a nice little call-back to works of one of his other favorite painters, Titian, who also presented these scenes of nudes in lush landscapes with clothed male musicians, such as Titian’s Pastoral Concert from 1509, today at the Louvre.

But if Luncheon on the Grass was a nice little wink to Titian, then Manet’s Olympia is a full-on, 19th-century, Parisian street culture direct update of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, perhaps one of his most iconic paintings. It’s like the reboot of Titian’s masterpiece. In Titian’s original, we are presented with a seductive blond nude, decked in pearl earrings and a golden bracelet,  lying on a daybed, who clutches a bouquet of roses in hand and delicately drapes the other over her pelvis in an act of modesty that actually draws the eye there-- and with this delicate come-hither glance, you’ve gotta know that this woman is looking to get some action. A sweet dog-- Fido, the symbol of fidelity--snoozes at her feet. So, who is this Venus? Well, she’s long been assumed to be a newlywed-slash-titular goddess of love, but that’s a whole other level of analysis and interpretation, and you’ve gotta read the late great Rona Goffin’s text on this work if you’re looking for a deep dive. Suffice to say this: it’s a truly gorgeous painting meant to represent the sacredness of love in an erotic yet virtuous way, all languid and soft.

Edouard Manet’s Olympia is… not that. His painting features a sallow nude contrasted against a dark green and brown background. Like Titian’s Venus, Olympia is reclining on a daybed, but there’s no lounging or resting about it-- she’s stiff and awkward, her feet bearing worn slippers. She has vibrant red hair with a blooming rose tucked behind her ear-- a reference, perhaps, to the Venus’s bouquet, and like Venus, she also wears jewelry, a golden bracelet and simple black choker. But whereas Venus was all come-hither-eyes and rosebud mouth, Olympia’s gaze is unwavering and not exactly welcoming. Her hand, too, covers her pubic area, but there’s no gentleness or suggestiveness-- instead, it’s clamped down between her short legs with her fingers pointed outward, like a claw, ready to attack. In this way, she’s the opposite of Venus-- she’s totally hands-off. By her foot is a black cat, arching its back, hissing-- it’s actually a semi-vague and slightly misshapen figure, but it’s there-- on the far right-- you just have to keep your eyes out for it. And finally, a third figure-- behind the bed, entering stage left, is a black servant woman, bearing a large, paper-wrapped bouquet of flowers, which Olympia pointedly ignores. Venus, the goddess of love? Oh, no. She’s Olympia-- a tired, worn-down Parisian sex worker, receiving gifts from a past or future suitor and looking at us as if to say, “Next?”  How do we know? Well, as if the signs weren’t enough, there’s her name itself, the title of the painting-- Olympia was known, at the time, to be a very popular pseudonym for French prostitutes.

What’s also noticeable about this painting is the manner in which Manet chose to depict his lady of the evening. Like many of the works that would fall squarely in Manet’s style and camp, it is a true “modernist” work, where everything is stark, flattened, graphic even. Olympia herself is defined with lines instead of shadows, painted roughly and with clearly evident brushstrokes. Manet is clearly breaking with conventions here, allowing his muse to be the anti-Venus of Urbino, not just in subject, but also in style.

So, was this painting well-loved when it was presented to the public? You already must know the answer to this one: no, it most certainly was not. When it was revealed in 1865, two years after its completion, the reception was so negative that Manet complained to his friend, writer and poet Charles Baudelaire, that all of Paris was, quote, “raining insults upon me!” People were pissed. But the reasons why they were so angry were many-- and some of those reasons may surprise you. That’s coming up next, right after a quick break: stay with us.

Welcome back to ArtCurious.

The negative reception for Edouard Manet’s modern nude, Olympia, was swift, but people hated the painting for a variety of reasons, some expected, but some also rather unexpected, at least to our 21st century minds. The first reason that so much opposition was thrown in Manet’s direction is a fairly obvious one: people really didn’t like the subject matter. A sex worker? That was so in-your-face, especially considering that a sex worker’s clients would most likely have been bourgeois men, and many of the same men who would frequent the Paris Salons and see this painting alongside their wives-- it was almost as if these men were forced into a staring competition with the image of a woman who symbolized all of their nocturnal misdeeds, which were increasing in popularity at the time due to the growing cafe and nightlife culture that the creation of Paris’s grand boulevards, under the guidance of Baron Haussmann, begat. All of a sudden, the men of Paris had more free reign to enjoy drinking, dancing, and cavorting than ever before, all while their good bourgeois wives stayed home and tended to all things domestic. And the women who were out drinking, dancing, and cavorting alongside these men? Well, if they were out after dark, and especially if they were single and hanging around with married men, you know that they were considered to be the “wrong” kind of gal. And this was who Olympia represented: not an idealized, classical nude, but the kind of real woman taken advantage of every day in 1860s Paris: a sex worker. And the bourgeoisie did NOT want to stand face-to-face and acknowledge this side of their otherwise prim and proper society.

Another reason that critics dismissed Olympia was--believe it or not--art-historical in nature, and stems partly from the way that Manet chose to depict his subject. First of all, Manet’s painting style broke from the expectations of the traditional nude. Viewers declared that the dark outline of her body made her look dirty. Her unidealized proportions-- those short legs and knobby knees were considered deformed and unattractive. She wasn’t beautiful-- or at least, Manet wasn’t overly concerned with highlighting his model’s beauty-- and in fact seems to have even gone out of his way to make her appear as shabby and used up as possible. And from an art-historical standpoint, this was just flat-out unacceptable. This is not how a nude is represented, you can hear some stuffy art critic exclaiming (I picture him with a monocle, but I’m sure that’s not entirely accurate). Nudes are soft, generous, classically lovely, a blank canvas--no pun intended-- for the perfection of the female form. It’s Greek sculptures like the Capitoline Venus, like Bernini’s Daphne, it’s Rubens’s dimpled maidens and, yes, Titian’s glowing goddess. How dare Manet degrade the tradition of the female nude by choosing to show a naked sex worker? Manet was supposed to use the classical past as the basis for all forms and subject matter--so that even if you were using a sex worker as your model for your actual work of art, you weren’t supposed to admit this outright-- you were supposed to cover it up and call her a goddess, like Diana, or Venus, or whatever. But not Manet. In her article, “Manet: A Radicalized Female Imagery”  art historian Eunice Lipton writes that  Manet had, quote, “robbed,” the concept of nudes of “their mythic scaffolding.” There’d be no going back now.

Quick side note about that real woman that Edouard Manet is painting-- our Olympia here. We know exactly who she is, and she was a frequent muse of Manet’s--perhaps not as much as Berthe Morisot, as we discussed in episode 14, but this woman does appear over and over again in Manet’s works. Her name was Victorine Meurent, and for the longest time, she was dismissed outright as being exactly who she appears to be in Olympia-- a prostitute, someone destitute who must have been desperate if she was willing to model nude and/or sell her body for money. But the truth of the matter is that Victorine Meurent was not a sex worker at all, and in fact had a career as a painter herself, even being accepted into the Salon of 1876, a year when Manet himself was rejected--yet again-- from the same exhibition. But history, until recently, hasn’t taken her seriously, because of works like Olympia, when her on-canvas role, so to speak, overshadowed her actual self. Victorine was not Olympia, and Olympia was most definitely not Victorine.

And it was really Olympia herself that caused such indignity in the viewers at the Salon-- and specifically, it was the glance and stance of Olympia. Here’s the deal: Titian’s Venus of Urbino is all sexy and flirty, and the main reason for her to exist is so that she can be a satisfying vision for the gaze of the viewer-- one that is assumed to be a male gaze in most art-historical cases, and actually was meant for the gaze of one particular man, the Duke of Urbino Guidobaldo II, who commissioned Titian’s painting in the 16th century. But Olympia is not allowing herself to be penetrated by the male gaze here at all, and in fact, she defies it.  She unabashedly stares down the viewer, surprised neither by her nudity nor the viewers presence, and she makes no attempt to shield her body, aside from that claw-like hand fiercely protecting herself. She has agency over her body--and who gets the right to look at it-- in a way that nudes before her really didn’t have. This was even different than other nudes from the same period, including some of those by Manet’s great friend and contemporary, Edgar Degas. In his images of bathers, for example, nude women are shown in process of completing their tasks of personal hygiene-- washing themselves, combing their hair, but these women are typically not engaging with us, as viewers, and instead are looking away, or might even be seemingly unaware of any viewer, which lends these works a sense of voyeurism. But Olympia is aware that she’s being watched, and she’s protecting herself because of it. And that was not the norm in 19th century Paris.

Or, could it possibly be even worse than that? Could this be the new woman, a new norm that terrified men? Much scholarship, especially in the last couple of decades, has focused squarely not on the central figure of Olympia herself, but the symbols that surround her, including her black servant, who has been identified as a woman named Laure who frequently modeled for Manet and other artists in his coterie. The racial undertones and analyses of Olympia’s servant here are vast and so, so, so fascinating--and far more than can be discussed here today-- but the sexual elements of Laure’s inclusion here are very specific.  Time for a deep dive. In the 19th century, there was a popular notion that black people were inherently more sexual than white people, a theory meant to confirm a racist agenda that posited anyone non-white as less-civilized and wild. This same trope can be seen in the Orientalist paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme,Théodore Chassériau and many others, which were popular around the same time period as Manet’s works. So in Olympia, the servant woman is the perfect foil for Olympia-- black where Olympia is white, wild and frenzied by nature whereas Olympia is staid and quote-unquote dignified. Except that Olympia isn’t that-- well, she’s white, sure, but she’s no gentlewoman. She’s having sex for money. And she’s obviously working with the servant woman here, engaging in a different kind of transaction should she choose to accept the bouquet being offered to her. So, in the hint of this relationship or transaction is the hint that perhaps Olympia and the servant woman aren’t that different after all. So, could Olympia be an insatiable sexual being? As Charles Bernheimer beautifully summed up in a 1989 article in the journal Poetics Today, quote, “The black maid is not simply a darkly colored counterpart to Olympia's whiteness, but rather an emblem of the dark, threatening, anomalous sexuality lurking just under Olympia's hand. At least, this is the fantasy Manet's servant figure may well have aroused in the male spectator of 1865.”

So both Laure and Olympia were frightening, shocking, terrifying to the people in positions of power in Paris as the turn of the century approached. And as many know, even today, there is nothing more earth-shattering than a woman who is doing something different than what's expected of her, who is following her own mind instead of the whims of others. Edouard Manet certainly must not have known at the time, but what we see now is that he painted a truly badass feminist icon. 

Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, it’s one of the bloodiest and most gruesome works of the Baroque period, and it’s all about womanly wrath and awesome revenge. That’s coming up in two weeks-- don’t miss it.

Thank you for listening to this first episode of the fourth season of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is an interdisciplinary creative space, founded to foster artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition spaces, Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. This means that you can donate to the show and it is fully tax-deductible! Follow the “Donate” links at our website for more details, and thank you.

As always, you can also go to our website for images, information and links to our previous episodes. That site is artcuriouspodcast.com. And you can contact us via the website, email us at artcuriouspodcast@gmail.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. --and remember to subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell anyone you want about the show. Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of  art history.

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