Monday, November 16, 2009

Manet's scandalous nude Olympia

It is hard to believe what a scandal this painting by Manet in his early years caused when first exhibited. There had been nudes for thousands of years, but this one raised the ire of many, so much that guards had to stand close to prevent angry viewers from thrusting their umbrellas through it. As late as 1932, Paul Valéry said the painting was shocking still, a monster of profane love. As a modern woman, I still can't see anything particularly shocking about it...perhaps someone could comment and enlighten me?

At any rate, the nation of France acquired the painting in 1890 with a public subscription raised by Claude Monet, whom Manet had helped financially - a story I told in a previous post. A great favor returned by the generous Monet who, as soon as he had anything to give and a stable roof over his head, was glad to aid his friends. Years before he was one of the grieving pallbearers at Manet's tragically early death. How these impressionists were all connected!


  1. The reasons that Olympia was considered so shocking were many: "Olympia" was a pseudonym only a courtesan would have and the woman lying on the bed attended to by her negro maid and naked except for a slipper and assorted adornments, was considered outrageous because of the frankness of her gaze – her latest client has just arrived in her boudoir – and for the positioning and aspect of her left hand. Mark Twain considered Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which Manet used as the template for Olympia, “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses” mainly because of where that Venus’s left hand is positioned, with the fingers obviously touching the vulva. While Manet’s model’s hand covers her genitals and the fingers are splayed over her leg rather than pointing provocatively toward her nether regions, she is less coquettish and her expression much franker and there are other scandalous flourishes like the cat. But it’s Victorine Meurent’s gaze that most scandalized Parisians, just as they were shocked by her nakedness and gaze in Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

  2. Rick, thanks! I had read this. It shows how hard it is for someone with a 21st century sensibility to see things exactly through the eyes of someone circa 1865! Oh yes, that hand...!