19th century master Edouard Manet occupies a unique place in art. He is very much “transitional,” in that his work expresses both Realism and Impressionism while never fully committing to either. Moreover, Manet’s paintings – and particularly his work with female nudes – defy classic tradition even as they reflect elements of it, and this is connected to why his Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass were considered extreme, if not shocking, by the society of his day. In these works Manet essentially moves the female nude into contemporary possibilities of society itself, even as he presents it in classic style, and this very much accounts for the negative response to the work. Ultimately, Manet’s Olympia supplies the classic female nude with an identity, or potential identity, relevant to the society, which powerfully calls into question ideas regarding sexuality and cultural hypocrisy.
On one level, Manet’s Olympia is an interestingly stylized nude, both reflecting classicism and expressing modernity of approach. The female form here is in a class pose of recline, apparently in her boudoir, and a servant is near her with an offering of flowers. What initially marks the painting as different, then, is the form Manet uses. The nude is not all graceful, classic curves; she is in fact somewhat angular, and her posture has a stiffness to it. Moreover, there is a general sense provided that this is a distinct scenario, and not any random, leisurely moment in the woman’s pampered life. Closer inspection then reveals the likely truth of the scene, and this fully explains why Olympia was considered outrageous by the Paris of Manet’s day.
To begin with, the figure of the woman herself is ambiguous, given the setting. She is lounging in the nude as the black servant woman is on hand to attend to her. The couch and the drapery behind it indicate comfort, if not luxury, just as the bracelet on her wrist and flower in her hair add a quality of ease to the scene. Certainly, this is no nude of a rustic peasant girl; it is a woman accustomed to some degree of attention or privilege. What this suggests, however, is an element linked very closely to 19th century France, and specifically to Paris. It is speculated by critics that there is an “unbathed” quality to the woman. Moreover, intense scrutiny by critics of the painting note important elements to it apart from the woman. The black maid is virtually a caricature of a servant, and she is carrying a tribute of flowers wrapped in Le Grand Journal and accompanied by a court order. All of this suggest a distinct identity for the woman; namely, that she is a prostitute, and it is noted that Manet would have been very familiar with the custom of Parisian prostitutes to live in a manner mimicking grand ladies (Locke 112). It then becomes likely that, in Olympia, Manet was going far beyond any presentation of a nude.
That the audiences then reacted strongly is perfectly explicable. Certainly, the French art world was long accustomed to viewing nudes. Manet, however, set before them something of a social statement. If the content of the work does indeed represent a prostitute, the nude has a completely different meaning, for the nudity reflects here multiple commercial and social issues. More to the point, Manet’s viewers would likely be appalled by what they perceive as a glorifying of a base woman. Importantly, the artist does nothing of the kind; he only presents the figure as she is, indicating her illicit career. Nonetheless, there are aspects to the painting which would alienate the viewers. It is noted, for example, that the hand over the genitalia does not seem casual (Locke 112); there is a deliberate quality to it, as though it is “protecting an asset.” Then, the woman’s expression, going directly to the viewer, is odd. It is placid, but it also betrays defiance and even a little anger. It may well be, then, that the viewers of the time felt Manet was offering a vindication of prostitutes. This aside, he was insisting upon recognition of them, which would have of itself been sufficient to shock his audience.
Far more deserving of “shock,” in fact, is Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, for this work seems to present a powerful criticism of social mores. As with Olympia, the implications are not necessarily overt; it is a leisurely scene of several men and women enjoying a picnic, and that the women are nude may merely indicate intimacy between them to this degree, and the women as feeling free to bathe. At the same time, the image unquestionably challenges norms and suggests male ownership of female sexuality and being, if only by virtue of the men as fully dressed. The implication is that the women are “bought,” and must be nude to fulfill the male expectations. It is generally accepted that Manet very much wished to shock his contemporaries, just as his style pays tribute to past masters; he incorporates into the painting family members, yet mirrors Raphael in form (Armstrong 154). This usage of family members, moreover, adds the dimension of agenda to the social statement; it is as if Manet is saying that all of his world supports the hypocrisy of simultaneously glorifying women and debasing them as prostitutes. This then goes to the reality that Manet does not only seek to shock, but to make a point. In Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass, women presumably leading lives as prostitutes are presented to a culture ostensibly horrified by prostitution even as it supports it.
It is inherently interesting when the female nude, so long an icon of classical art, takes on qualities so specific, the classicism is eclipsed and the society viewing it is taken aback. This is very much Manet’s achievement, if not agenda, in Olympia, and this is further supported by his usage of nudes in Luncheon on the Grass. Manet’s audience was indeed shocked, which was precisely what the artist intended, because he gives social identities to these forms, and of a kind defying the culture’s overt codes. If he does not glorify the prostitute, he nonetheless presents her as fact, and this was disturbing enough. Then, this presentation implicitly challenges the ethics of the culture so shocked. Manet’s Olympia then provides the classic female nude with an identity, or potential identity, relevant to the society, which and this calls into question the norms regarding sexuality and cultural hypocrisy.
- Armstrong, C. Manet Manette. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.
- Locke, Nancy. Manet and the Family Romance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.