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Manet, Olympia

Édouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Manet's Olympia painting challenges traditional art by presenting a modern, real woman instead of an idealized Venus. The artwork confronts viewers with Olympia's direct gaze and sexuality, making them question their motives for looking. New scholarship reveals the importance of Laure, the black servant, as a representation of Paris's diverse, modern life.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft music) - [Steven] There's a long tradition of the female nude represented in the most erotic sensuous way clothed by mythology or clothed by sheer beauty. - [Beth] Mr. Tradition, that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans in sculptures, for example, of the goddess Venus modestly covering her body after her bath and Manet in this painting that we're looking at here at the Musee d'Orsay is clearly drawing on those traditions, but doing something radically modern. - [Steven] The immediate model for Manet was Titian's Venus of Urbino, except he's stripping away the academic technique of the representation of space of the turn of the body. But he's also stripping away that veil of mythology. So by academic art, we're talking about the kind of art that was sanctioned by the official academy that was associated with the government of France. - [Beth] It didn't challenge, particularly, it satisfied. - [Steven] For one, because it had the stamp of the official state. These were the leading artists of the time that were saying this art is of quality. And so of course it had already marked value, but at the same time it was art that was formulaic, that was expected. - [Beth] Well, there was an idea that there was a definition of great art and there was no point in looking for what was new or different because what great art was self-evident. Great art was based on the classical and the Renaissance, and what someone like Manet is doing is challenging those very established ideas, ideas that seemed as natural as the sun coming up in the morning. She's not a Venus. Her name is Olympia and she looks very much like a real woman in a real apartment in Paris. - [Steven] So how do you know she looks like a real woman as opposed to a Venus? - [Beth] Her features are not idealized. They're not perfected. When we look at ancient Greek sculpture or Renaissance paintings of the nude, we have a woman who's perfectly beautiful and you can see her face is asymmetrical and her lips are a little bit too thin. She doesn't have that perfection. - [Steven] In addition, the representations of the academic artists always show Venus or other nudes in a coy way. This woman is looking directly at us. She is sentient. She is thinking, and she's confronting us even as we look at her. - [Beth] And so there was a real problem for the viewers of this painting. There's no way to look at her and pretend that it was about beauty, one was confronted by her sexuality. - [Steven] This woman was recognized as a courtesan. That is as a kind of prostitute. - [Beth] The name Olympia was common for prostitutes at that time in Paris. - [Steven] And what we're seeing here is Olympia servant handing her flowers that presumably have just come from one of her customers. But look at the way that Olympia's looking out towards us. We must have, as the customer, walked into the room and startled the cat at the foot of the bed, as well as the two figures. - [Beth] When we use the word prostitute, we think of a figure of much lower class. And here we have a woman who's a higher class prostitute. - [Steven] Important new scholarship has helped us to better understand one of the two primary figures in this painting. - [Beth] New scholarship by Denise Murell helps us see that this is part of his attempt to capture modern life in Paris, and modern life in Paris was decidedly diverse. - [Steven] Murell's research opens up this painting. It tells us that this is a painting that is not just a reprise of the Venus in Titian's Venus of Urbino. But it expresses modernity in its inclusion of a black woman, a woman who had posed for him for a gorgeous portrait. And even before that, on the side of a painting of "Children in the Tuleries Gardens". - [Beth] There was a small black community in the Northern part of Paris, but after 1848 when territorial slavery was finally outlawed in France, that population grew and Laure lived only 20 minutes away from Manet and close to many of the other painters and prominent artists of the time. - [Steven] And look at the way that Manet paints Laure in relationship to Olympia. Olympia is static, almost like a sculpture. Whereas Laure seems to be momentary, seems to be a part of the modern world, seems to be in motion. - [Beth] We do not know Laure's last name. We think that she was likely from the Caribbean or from Africa, but Laure is mostly lost to history. - [Steven] And importantly, this scholarship notes that Manet has dressed her in modern clothing, but with a reference still to the Caribbean and that can be seen in her head wrap. - [Beth] Most images at this time of black figures were either exoticized, romanticized, or they're ethnographic. In other words, they are an attempt to capture a certain type, but Manet seems more interested in presenting Laure as a modern black woman in Paris. - [Steven] The reaction of the press was pretty vicious. - [Beth] The press said Olympia looked like a cadaver. Manet outlined her in lack and hardly modeled her flesh. - [Steven] Some of the caricatures that were made of this emphasized the shadow on her hands and feet and some of the press actually of her hands being filthy. And it's interesting that those are the only areas where there's significant modeling. - [Beth] Where one would expect to see modeling on the female nude would be in the abdomen or around the breasts. And here Manet's kept that really flat. The areas that we do see shadow are unexpected. So that press interpreted her hand as drawing attention to her sexuality, even though nudes for centuries had shown women with their hand placed across their genital. - [Steven] You mentioned the kind of flatness of her body and some art historians even said she's a bit of a paper cutout. Manet and so much of his work really does reject the clear articulation of represented space and confronts the viewer with the complexity of painting on a two dimensional surface, and an area where you can really see that are, for instance, in the way the toes peak out from under her slipper. There is this awkwardness that remind to us that all of this is illusion. And that in fact there is just this two dimensionality of this canvas. - [Beth] Manet is saying, "I'm not gonna pretend that my painting isn't paint. I'm not going to present you with this perfect illusion the way that academic artists are doing where you don't even see a brush stroke." So he's insisting on unmasking that illusion. And then he's insisting on unmasking the illusion of our own interests in looking at these images. He's reminding us that our interest here is a sexual one. - [Steven] Right, in so many traditional representations of the nude, because the figure is not looking out at us, we can comfortably look at her. But here we're confronted by her gaze and by her thinking and there is a much more problematic experience here. - [Beth] And that's in the fact that she's a real woman, she's contemporary and the way she picks her head up, the way she looks out at us, the angularity of her body, and people at the time in 1865 recognized it. - [Steven] So this is a painting that is about art making and about the kinds of conventions that exist in art and making us the viewer aware of those conventions, even as we look at this painting. - [Beth] Manet is saying, "Let's be honest about the materials. Let's be honest about the subject and our own motives and desires." The great poet and art critic Charles Butler called on artists to paint the beauty of modern life. And I think Manet is taking up that call. - [Steven] Manet is inventing what beauty could be for the modern world. (soft music)