1848 – 1907
Industrial Revolution II

Édouard Manet's Olympia

Édouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker 


Édouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863-65 (Musee d'Orsay)

Édouard Manet brought to Realism his curiosity about social mores. However, he was not interested in mirroring polite parlor conversations and middle class promenades in theBois de  Boulogne (Paris’ Central Park). Rather, Manet invented subjects that set the Parisians’ teeth.

In 1865, Manet submitted his risqué painting of a courtesan greeting her client (in this case, you), Olympia, of 1863, to the French Salon. The jury for the 1865 Salon accepted this painting despite their disapproval of the subject matter, because two years earlier, Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass created such a stir when it was rejected from the Salon.  (It was instead exhibited in Emperor Napoleon III’s conciliatory exhibition—the Salon des Réfusés, or the Exhibition ofthe Refused. Crowds came to the Salon des Réfusés specifically to laugh and jeer at what they considered Manet’s folly.)

Somehow they were afraid another rejection would seem like a personal attack on Manet himself. The reasoning was odd, but the result was the same—Olympia became infamous and the painting had to be hung very high to protect it from physical attacks.

Manet was a Realist, but sometimes his “real” situations shocked and rocked the Parisian art world to its foundations. His later work was much tamer.

Text by Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic

Your Comments (3)

Previous Comments

Richard Blunt wrote on Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The discussion - though interesting - underplays the role of the servant, who seems important to the artist. The servant directs our gaze to his/her mistress, as would a salesman exhibiting his goods, and has - a moment before - revealed her by withdrawing the decorous pillow. Like the unwrapping of a gift, the servant draws attention to Olympia's sudden exposure (in contrast to Venus' eternal presence), to the moment, intensifying the shock of Olympia's naked presence. Manet's portrayal of the servant is the act of a magician.

cc wrote on Thursday, March 10, 2011

Edward Manet’s Olympia is a work that I quite love; I enjoy all of the symbolism in the work and the power Manet gives to Olympia. I like how he paints her taking control of her sexuality and how it almost makes the statement that she chooses who and when she can be looked at. Manet does this by the way he paints Olympia, looking out at the viewer and covering her genitals intentionally. Iconography is a very important part of this work as it displays ideas of the artist and the time period. For example Manet wanted this painting to be a comment on the classical and traditional ways of painting a female figure. It is also ridiculing Titian’s Venus of Urbino. It is interesting to think about the power of the gaze, as Olympia looking out at the viewer in such a way makes it so that the viewer cannot be voyeuristic and takes away pleasure one could get while looking at the work. All sexual undertones that could be in the work are taken away. Olympia is not an idealized goddess; Manet paints an everyday working woman, commenting on society of that time and giving her power. Moreover this painting was originally criticized, but created a push for avant-garde work. This work has so much within it that it is truly an amazing work of art!

Marie Penny wrote on Thursday, March 10, 2011

When I look at this painting it gives me an uneasy feeling, that you should not be looking at her, she covers herself, not wanting to be displayed to the public. But at the same time looks right at the viewer as if she is fine with people watching her. It suggests the idea of prostitution, by her lying on the bed unclothed while the maid is fully clothed. The maid stares at her from her side making it seem like the young girl is being showed like an object one admires from a distance, creating a sexual tension within the painting. What makes this nerve racking is that in this case the maid is right up close to the lady. There is high symbolism in this painting that suggests sexuality. Her hair pulled back, the ribbon that is around her neck, the slippers on her feet and the bracelet on her wrist all represent her being comfortable with her life style. These things along with the black cat and bouquet of flowers were known symbols of sexuality for time in which this painting was created.

Add Comments

We think Smarthistory works best when it prompts discussion. Please post (on-topic) comments.*

*All comments are moderated

To post a comment, you need the Adobe Flash Plugin. Download it from here.
This work is an open educational resource and This work is licensed under a Creative Common Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.