In the Salon de Paris in 1865, there was one room that was far more crowded than usual. On Sundays, it was so overwhelmingly packed that visitors struggled to get close to the one painting that they all wanted to see. People were shocked that Édouard Manet’s Olympia was even allowed to be displayed. It was fiercely condemned, not only by the public but also by most art critics and the press.
Olympia differed from classical representations of Eve or Venus. Instead of an angel, she was unmistakably a naked contemporary woman. Manet painted her neither bathing, dreaming nor dressing, but simply doing nothing. This suggested that she was there waiting purely for sex, as a prostitute. A critic wrote: “We prefer to think he has made a mistake. And what is his aim? His canvases are too unfinished for us possibly to tell.” Eventually, the painting was physically attacked and guards had to be posted next to it for protection. Pregnant women were advised against viewing the picture as it was likely to be distressing.
Manet had taken inspiration from Titian’s painting of the naked Venus of Urbino, and created what he thought would bring him acclaim and a pedestal among the greats. Titian’s muse had been Angela del Moro, who was apparently Venice’s second-highest-paid prostitute, notable for refusing to fake orgasms. Despite this, Titian’s model was not depicted as a whore. He painted her in a gently thoughtful pose, unlike Manet’s earthy Olympia.
Manet’s model was Victorine Meurent – she was not a courtesan but a musician and an artist in her own right. He painted her with a flower in her hair, black lace around her neck, and a bracelet with a gold locket on her wrist. The bracelet contained a lock of Manet’s own hair, which had been cut off at an early age and carried around by his mother.
Lying on her bed, Olympia gazes at us directly and unflinchingly, perhaps indicating that we, the viewers, are her clients. Manet also replaced Titian’s curled-up dog with an angry black cat; its tail curled provocatively in the air. It seemed to be threatening the viewers, insisting that they respect its mistress.
Manet had attempted to paint a modern Venus, a goddess for Paris in the 1860s. Unfortunately, this reading of the picture didn’t sit well at a time when widespread prostitution had become a subject of growing sensitivity in France. Olympia embodied both moral and artistic sin, and seemed more provocative than enigmatic.
To others, much of the appeal of the painting was that it highlighted the fact that prostitution and class struggles were entangled. Manet was trying to acknowledge the feelings of repressed women in society, but French middle- and upper-class gentlemen of 1865 were not ready to witness a real woman shamelessly confronting them.
No other painting had ever attracted such a negative response: “Her body has the livid tint of a cadaver displayed in the morgue; her outlines are drawn in charcoal, and her greenish, bloodshot eyes appear to be provoking the public, protected all the while by a hideous negress. No, never has anything so... strange been hung on the walls of an art exhibition.” The picture was also thought to lack perspective. It had been painted with a new technique employing quick, broad brushstrokes, which caused further fury to be directed at the work by classicists. In fact, Manet had been inspired by Japanese wood block art, and the flatness of the painting made Olympia look even more direct and alive.
Eventually, towards the end of May 1865, the administration moved the painting out of sight in order for the exhibition to receive more favourable support. One of the more prominent art critics thanked the commission, and stated: “At the moment, his canvas is so well hidden above the two doors in one of the end rooms that you need the eyes of a lynx to detect it. At this height, Olympia looks like an immense spider on the ceiling. She cannot even be laughed at any more, which has quite disappointed everyone.” The popular press mocked Manet even further by printing caricatures of Olympia. Manet was as mortified by the critical response as his critics were horrified by Olympia itself.
In the alphabetically arranged Salon of 1865, two seascapes by Claude Monet were hung alongside Manet’s Olympia. Manet had not heard of Monet until then and was rather irritated when, due to the similarity in names, he started being congratulated for Monet’s paintings. On closely inspecting the signature, he exclaimed: “Who is this rascal who pastiches my painting so shamelessly?”
Later in life, however, Manet developed great affection for Monet and always looked after his best interests. In 1875, he wrote a letter to an art critic, stating: “I went to see Monet yesterday. I found him in great distress, and at his wit’s end. He asked me if I could find someone who would buy at choice 10 or 20 of his paintings at 100 francs each. Do you think that we could fix him up between ourselves, each of us contributing 500 francs? Of course, it must be understood that nobody, and he least of all, should know that we are arranging it ourselves.” After Manet’s death, it was Monet who organised a fund to purchase Olympia and offered it to the French state.
Despite all the criticism, the painting was also cherished by a few other artists, including Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. In 1874, Cézanne painted A Modern Olympia as an homage. In his later years, he also proclaimed its immense significance, stating: “One must always keep it in mind. It is a new mode of painting. Our Renaissance dates from it.”
© Charles Saatchi 2017