Manet’s Olympia: An Artistic Scandal of Nudity

Abstract

During the 19th century, French society was increasingly invested into the spectacle of reality. This spawned the phenomenon of the flaneur, a casual observer of the world. This culture of observing reality led to the artistic form of Impressionism, where artists painted their own views of the world. Impressionism was considered one of the most distinctive contributions to art of the nineteenth century, differing from artistic forms of the past, because it centered on the idea of painting what was seen in real life. Impressionism could be considered a rebellious movement in its striking defiance of cultural norms. One of the most scandalous provocations stemming from the Impressionism movement was Edouard Manet’s Olympia, a painting of a naked woman reclining on a couch, being waited on by a servant. At the time of its debut, it received a tremendous amount of negativity. Modeled specifically after Titan’s Venus of Urbino, the painting contained many elements of the Renaissance; however, Manet’s Olympia differed drastically in its thematic message. Manet’s painting redefined the artistic form of nudity and was an intentional act to cause a spectacle. Olympia’s nude form was not considered beautiful or refined, like Venus’s. Instead, she was a prostitute who bluntly represented sex and desire. This created a scandal that brought into question transgressions across social class and the sexual image of women. Olympia was painted to socially include the viewer; she pulled them and made them her customer. To the Bourgeoisie class, paying to prostitution was a violation of their values. However, prostitution was an evil that men of higher class fueled. Therefore Manet questioned the superiority of the Bourgeoisie to the rest of society. Furthermore, Olympia’s dominating posture in the painting alluded to self-control of her sexuality, which allowed her to attain a power over males.

 

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