OLYMPIA - 1863 - Édouard MANET


Why did Manet’s Olympia, painted in 1863 but only exhibited for the first time in 1865, generate such an unequalled scandal?
Why does this work, almost a century and a half later, continue to upset and disturb?

Why does this work, almost a century and a half later, continue to upset and disturb?
This is certainly not the representation of nudity: the walls of the official Salon were covered with these. It is true, however, that, in order to preserve the fake prudery of that time, all unwanted hair were cautiously removed, and historical, mythological, exotic, or Christian excuses were put forward to justify these nudities. How many young naked saints thrown as food to wild beasts in amphitheatres? How many beautiful nudities freed from captivity by valiant knights fighting dragons? How many odalisques taking care of themselves in harems? Manet’s depicted character does not meet these criteria. It is obviously a prostitute waiting for her patron… The spectator? Besides, in the 1860’s, the word olympia was commonly used to refer to luxury whores. Cézanne, in his two versions of Une moderne Olympia [A modern Olympia], emphasizes this by depicting a patron, almost at the spectator’s place. The yellow shawl on which the model lies was also one of the attributes of prostitutes.(1).

It is not the pose either. It is rather less lascivious than those of the models borrowed from Manet’s illustrious predecessors: Giorgione’s Dresden Venus, Titian Urbino’s Venus, Ingres’ Odalisque with a slave, Goya’s Maja Desnuda… The later is much more provocative: no hand to hide the pubis where the shade of the escutcheon is visible… Also, with Manet, the black cat (slyness and femininity) with its raised tail, replacing the sleeping dog (faithfulness) in Titian’s work, a crystal clear metaphor for the pussy hidden by the hand. The black servant is no stranger than the slave playing a lute and the black eunuch in Ingres’ painting. Let us note, however, that, in this later work, the blue blanket on which the odalisque lies reveals a corner of its quilted lining… Yellow… A load of meanings: under the cover of purity (blue) lies the whore (yellow). An extremely male-chauvinistic and 19th-century view of womanhood…

Is not it here that one has to look for the troubling and disturbing power of this picture? With all of the precursors of our Olympia, the model is passive – she even has her eyes shut with Giorgione –, being offered to the lust of the male observer. With Manet, the model, clearly individualised, in a crude light, stares at the spectator. The lack of expressiveness and of sensuality in the rendering of the flesh(2) clearly shows that the artist’s purpose is not to produce a sexually arousing work, but elsewhere. Manet depicts a confrontation, a conflicting situation, in which the woman is on the verge of getting the upper hand, of taking the initiative. She is no more a neutral and passive object of desire and lust, but an independent being with an active personality, claiming her right for pleasure and her sexual domination on the man that becomes her toy.

Unacceptable in the 19th century society… But is it more acceptable today with many of our contemporaries? It is in this early feministic assertion that Manet’s Olympia thus calls out, and will still call out for a long time, to us. This painting thus echoes the motto that Manet coined for himself: manet et manebit(3).

Louis Doucet, Décember 2012


(1) Véronique Bui, Le châle jaune des prostituées au XIXe siècle : signe d’appartenance ou signe de reconnaissance ? [The prostitutes’ yellow shawl in 19th century: a sign of membership or of recognition?] , association Fabula, février 2008.
(2) Paul de Saint-Victor : “The crowd hurries up, as if at a mortuary, in front of Mr. Manet’s corrupt Olympia. Art that has gone so low does it does not even deserve to be blamed.”, in Le salon de 1865, La Presse, May 28th 1865.
(3) He or she remains and will remain.


Ingres   Goya
Titien   Giorgione
Cezanne   Cezanne




> Version Française

> Version Allemande

> Version Anglaise




> Le baiser de KLIMT

> La Joconde de Léonard de Vinci

> Le Radeau de la Méduse



> Louis DOUCET