Manet’s Olympia and its Reception Described Through Media

Throughout history, the gaze of the public has had an impact on the perception of art. Public opinion can characterize a painting, and oftentimes reveal aspects of society through their contemporary critiques of art. When it comes to Manet’s Olympia, print media, particularly caricatures, serve to reveal the reasoning behind the growing public distaste for the French painter’s Venus. The public saw the painting as not only distasteful, but as unappealing and offensive. The preexisting standard of what makes a nude a nude, and a “Venus” a “Venus”, was emphasized by the media through its harsh critique of Manet and his work. Using print media to help characterize public opinion, this paper will examine societal standards regarding the Venus pose, race and racism, and expectations for women and their sexuality as it relates to Manet’s Olympia at the time of its 1865 debut.

Olympia depicts one of Manet’s most favorite models as a sex worker, sat in the Venus position, a pose popularized by Titian in 1534. While Olympia’s occupation may not be clear to today’s audience, there are many telling signs within this piece which were obvious signals to viewers in the 1865 Salon.

Starting with her dressings, or lack thereof, her black choker necklace was a common signifier that a woman was a sex worker. Her bracelet is reminiscent of the bracelet worn in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Manet likely added this detail to more directly correlate the two, and the red flower in her hair was placed for similar reasons; it is important to note that red flowers commonly represent a woman’s sexuality and fertility, two things which a sex worker would herself symbolize. Her surroundings are also very telling; the bed is unmade and almost dirty, implying recent or continuous activity, while the arched black cat at the foot of her bed is a replacement of Titian’s sleeping dog, a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness (presumably to a husband), its cat-counterpart would represent promiscuity and arousal. Her notably black attendant is seen arriving with a bouquet of flowers, which are likely a cheap arrangement bought in haste by the customer whose arrival they signify. Olympia has been determined to be an up-scale prostitute because of her attendant and flowers, a lower class prostitute would likely not have an attendant or receive gifts.

The issue taken with Manet’s work arises when subject, pose, and audience are brought together; society’s views on women and sex workers did not coincide with the goddess-like representation of the Venus pose, and the predominantly upper-class male viewers at the Salon would take particular issue with the drastic deviation of the otherwise accommodating depictions of women.

To further understand Olympia’s disaster debut, the history of the Venus in art must be understood. The Venus pose was popularized by Titian, an artist who lived and worked during the time of the renaissance. He studied under and painted alongside Giorgione, who painted the original image of a Venus reclining. Upon his death in 1510, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (fig. 1) was completed by Titian. It was not until several years later in 1534 that Titian decided to create his own version, the Venus of Urbino (fig. 2).

Fig. 1. “Sleeping Venus” Giorgione, 1510. 42.7in x 69in. Oil on canvas.
Fig. 2. “Venus of Urbino” Titian, 1534. 3’11” x 5’5″. Oil on canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Titian’s rendition of the Venus reclining, which managed to accumulate more fame than Giorgione’s, sparked inspiration that lasted throughout the renaissance. Artists utilized the figure of a reclining woman not only to display their artistic abilities, but to represent women as one of God’s ultimate creations.1 Grabski, Józef. “”Victoria Amoris”: Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” A Commemorative Allegory of Marital Love.” Artibus Et Historiae20, no. 40 (1999): 9-33. doi:10.2307/1483663. Using female figures in this way, as a representation of the abilities of the artist and of God, shifts the focus away from the woman and onto the accomplishments of man. The Venus, in its effortless recline and flawless composure, serves to depersonalize and disconnect these figures from real women, and caters specifically to the male gaze.

Artists continued the use of this iconic pose, leading to Manet’s Olympia (fig. 3),  which was first exhibited at the 1865 Salon, more than two centuries after Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus was completed. Olympia, however, quickly received less than pleasant reviews. The subject of the painting, a reclining woman which, like many others, was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 2 Moffitt, John F. “PROVOCATIVE FELINITY IN MANET’S “OLYMPIA”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 14, no. 1 (1994): 21-31. had been described as putrefying and corpse-like. The critic Geronte described Olympia as a “Hottentot Venus”, with other critics characterizing her as ugly and inhuman.3 Bernheimer, Charles. “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” Poetics Today 10, no. 2 (1989): 255-77. doi:10.2307/1773024.

Fig. 3. “Olympia”, Manet. 1865. 51.4in x 74.8in. Oil on canvas. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The comparison to the Hottentot Venus, whose real name was Saartjue Baartmann, seems to be drawn from Olympia’s black female attendant, whose presence proves that the perceived deviancy and heightened sexuality of black women served to intensify anxieties about the white prostitute. The historian Sander Gilman describes Olympia as a demonstration of “Manet’s debt to the pathological model of sexuality… It is the black female as the emblem… which haunts the background of Manet’s Olympia”.4 Grigsby, Darcy Grimaldo. “Still Thinking about Olympia’s Maid.” The Art Bulletin 97, no. 4 (2015): 430-51. Accessed November 28, 2020. This, along with the long French history of slavery and colonialism, must be considered not only when viewing Olympia, but when discussing the caricatures printed in the press.

While Olympia, and her black cat, were not immune to harsh criticism, the portrayal of her black maid can only be seen as racist. In an 1864 caricature by Charles Albertd’Arnoux (fig. 4),who went by the name Bertall, simply titled Olympia Caricature when published in the Journal Amusant, Olympia’s maid is printed completely black, with only her white eyes and exaggerated teeth shown.

Fig. 4.”Olympia Caricature”, Bertall, 1865

In a similarly rendered caricature by M. Zacharie Astruc, her maid is described as a “coal woman” who has “never been exposed to so commonplace a liquid as water”5 Curtiss, Mina. “Manet Caricatures: Olympia.” The Massachusetts Review 7, no. 4 (1966): 725-52. Accessed November 30, 2020. The overwhelmingly harsh portrayal of Olympia’s maid, however, is not far from Manet’s original presentation. His rendering and inclusion of her black maid is rooted in what historian T. J. Clark describes as “the fiction of blackness”; the idea that black servitude exists independent from money, and is a natural subjugation.6 Grigsby, “Still Thinking about Olympia’s Maid.” Manet employs this fiction within his work, and it is subsequently exaggerated in the media.

Olympia’s maid was not the only thing picked apart within the media. The public had an extreme and negative response to Olympia’s black cat. Caricaturists chose the cat to symbolize the evilness of the whole painting, an idea that dates back to the Middle Ages, in which it was believed that Satan would disguise himself as a black cat. Charles Amédée de Noé, known as Cham, published La Naissance du petit ebeniste (fig. 5)

Fig. 5. “La Naissance du petit ebeniste”, Cham, 1865, Le Charivari.

in Le Charivari in 1865, where Olympia’s cat is rendered far oversized and with a large frazzled tail, seemingly startled by Olympia herself.

The cat “haunted the minds and the drawings of caricaturists not only in the year of her first public appearance but for seven or eight years after”.7 Curtiss, “Manet Caricatures: Olympia.” In a 1868 cartoon, mocking Manet’s friend Jules Champfleury, the cat can be seen sticking her tongue out at him. This trend of the ever-present and evil cat continued on in Bertall’s 1872 caricature of Manet’s The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama (fig. 6)

Fig. 6. “Naval Battle”, Bertall, 1872.
Fig. 7. “Little Girl”, Lambron, 1873.

and the 1873 caricature of Manet’s Le Repos (fig. 7).8Curtiss, “Manet Caricatures: Olympia.”

What can now be described as the most significant factor of the work, the arched black cat, branded Olympia as the “Venus au chat noir”. But, this nickname is not without reason. Manet uses the erect black cat as a symbol of sexuality, particularly arousal. Unlike his inspiration, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which features a dog upon the young woman’s bed, with the same placement as Manet’s cat, to symbolize marital fidelity, Manet chooses a provocative pet. This contrast makes Manet’s choice clear and definite, the cat solidifies Olympia as a lubricious woman.9 Moffitt, “PROVOCATIVE FELINITY IN MANET’S “OLYMPIA”.

Olympia herself was not immune to attacks from the media. In Bertall’s same Olympia Caricature (fig 4.), in which her maid is depicted so insensitively, Olympia is depicted with a visible cloud of stink emulating from her feet. This depiction of her, as smelling and dirty, is a staple for Olympia caricatures. The critic Geronte described Olympia as “naked on her bed like a corpse on the counters of the morgue, this Olympia from the rue Mouffetard [a notorious haunt of prostitution at the time], dead of yellow fever and already arrived at an advanced state of decomposition”.10 Bernheimer, “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” Another critic, who called himself Ego, describes her as having dirty hands and feet, and many more have pointed out her seemingly dirty and notably untidy bedding.11 Bernheimer, “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” These opinions stem from what can more so be described as a style choice on Manet’s behalf, rather than a choice to further emphasize Olympia’s sexuality. In fact, the rendering of her skin does the complete opposite, the likeness of a sickly woman or even a corpse does little to harness the essence of a woman’s sexuality, and serves to completely turn viewers off.

T.J. Clark believes that these scathing journal reviews of Olympia’s looks are displaced descriptions of Olympia’s sexuality, meaning that the corpse-like and sickly reviews of her are an attempt to strip Olympia of the sexuality the painting otherwise renders.12 Bernheimer, “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” The Venus pose is inherently sexual; along with the guiding line of the doorway leading directly to Olympia’s mons pubis, her left hand is draped over her private area in order to draw the eye and create a sexually suggestive movement; this same strategy can be seen in both Giorgione and Titian’s works. The composition and pose of Olympia, including her gaze pointed directly at the viewer, combined with the underlying sexual nature of the two figures alongside her, creates an overtly sexual painting. While the media’s rhetoric can be described as sensational and hyperbolic, their emphasis on absence, negativity, and decay reveals the deep-seated anxiety described by T.J. Clark over the overt sexuality of Olympia.13 Bernheimer, “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.”

This anxiety lies within the traditions of nude portraiture, wherein the woman is put on display for the pleasure of the, likely male, spectator. The artistic traditions, seen even in the famous Venus pose, are specifically calculated to please the male viewer in whatever sexual fantasy they may hold, particularly those of domination.14 Bernheimer, “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” The critic John Berger writes that, “almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal-either literally or metaphorically-because the sexual protagonist is the spectator- owner looking at it”.15Bernheimer, “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” Manet’s subject, however, seems all too eager to engage in the male gaze, almost inviting the sexual consequence; Olympia simply does not do enough to abstract from its signs of sexuality and is consequently read as a reference to the world of the courtesan.

This reading, though, is quite accurate, the model in Olympia is in fact rendered a prostitute. Her name alone makes it clear, as it was a common pseudonym used by courtesans, she also wears a choker-necklace worn by courtesans to mark themselves as such, and her maid brings in a bouquet of simple shop flowers sent by a gentleman caller.16 Moffitt, “PROVOCATIVE FELINITY IN MANET’S “OLYMPIA”. Olympia is, clearly, a prostitute posed as a goddess, unwavering in her sexuality, almost basking in it. An idea that, at the time, was not only certainly unpopular but almost offensive. With this knowledge, it is easy to imagine why Manet received such scathing criticism.

Manet did not paint an idealized, goddess-like version of a woman, he painted a real woman and a courtesan nonetheless. Instead of implementing the typical pose and subject of most post-Renaissance sexual imagery, or the form an ambiguous reclining Venus, he paints Olympia as a Venus, therefore she was considered naked and all too real. Manet’s painting style renders Olympia as thoroughly unidealized, and utilizes her surrounding maid and cat to emphasize her sexuality, creating an image of female sexuality that was frowned upon. These aspects of the work are what made Olympia, and subsequently Manet himself, such an alluring target for the media. The caricatures emphasize the true qualities of the painting, yet fail to acknowledge that the dislike of these qualities stem not from the painting itself, but from the insecurities of male viewers and French society as whole during the time of it’s 1865 debut.