Manet’s Purpose and Societal Results

The reasons to why Olympia was a scandal was what truly changed the way art, class, and females were viewed.

Manet’s Purpose

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Manet’s Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 1878–79

Knowing that he would face societal criticism upon Olympia’s debut, “Manet undoubtedly wanted to provoke” (Adut 243). Manet was one of the leading artists in the new style of Impressionism, basically taking a classical artistic theme and reinventing it to his own notions. His paintings were considered the start of a revolution towards modern art and were considered “as the first democratic art” (Adut 248). This political ideology was applied towards his work, due to the fact that Manet painted what he wanted to his own whims. Instead of being dictated by conventional standards, Manet determinedly sought out change. Generally, this allowed for the liberalization of attitudes. As Impressionism gained more followers and supporters, the idea of what was acceptable expanded. Essentially, “the radicalness of its vision eventually became ordinary” (Adut 246). This trend could be seen throughout time, as progressively, most society move to become more tolerant of sensitive subject matters.

Societal Result

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Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera, oil on canvas, 1832 – 1883

Class Transgression.
Olympia was scandalous because of her defiance of class boundaries and bourgeoisie values. She did not threaten the social structure, but merely uncovered its true constructs. To Manet, his “depiction of woman’s nakedness” was his way of “exposing the inevitable collapse of class difference under the pressure of a male gaze preoccupied with sexual difference” (Bernheimer 262). This implied that her nakedness, her sensuality, her body, transcended class. In Olympia, the audience is essentially trying to gain the favor of a prostitute placed in a high-class position. This was an outrageous notion to French society, as prostitution was an economical transaction that did not require any means of courtship. Prostitution itself was “unlikely plenitude: it was the site of absolute degradation and dominance, the place where the body became at least an exchange value, a perfect and complete commodity” (Clark 102). Therefore people were outraged that a prostitute would be represented akin to that of the upper class. However, the act of prostitution, or paying into prostitution, “meant a transgression of normal class divisions  – a curious exposure of the self to someone inferior, someone lamentable” (Clark 144). It was the exposure of oneself to those considered subordinate, to satisfy beastly urges. By revealing this idea, Manet contrasted the society’s socio-economical divide. Even though people may have followed the social construction of class, sex was “irrelevance of class” (Bernheimer 263). It was a very instinctive human craving that allowed a disregard for class boundaries, therefore opposing Bourgeoisie values. Olympia’s status as a prostitute disrupted notions of domesticity and righteousness, as a husband could not be faithful to his family if he sought pleasures outside the home. Olympia, more specifically, brought into question how prostitution shaped class boundaries. Prostitution was an evil that men of higher class fueled. Therefore “she signified for the bourgeoisie its own subjection to animal lust, to dark instinctual drives and shameful perversions, and because she exposed the fragility of its class dominance over the proletariat” (Bernheimer 260). Prostitution could only exist as an institution if only there was a demand and a pursuit by those who can afford it. For the Bourgeoisie, the consumer of prostitution, Manet was implying that they were not superior to the rest of society. Their morals and values were meaningless when it came to the basic human condition. As a whole, the Bourgeoisie could present a façade of dominance over the lower masses, but underneath they succumbed and became those that they separated themselves from.

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Manet’s Victorine Meurent, oil on canvas, 1862

Female Empowerment.
In addition to class boundaries, Olympia also challenged society by promoting female empowerment. Even though Olympia was the apex of desire and sex, she was portrayed to be in control of her own sexuality.  This could be witnessed through her posture in the picture, as “her face and chest were merely frontal, but her hips and legs were twisted into profile- the lower half of her body is closed and guarded” (Mitchell 43). Rigid and defiant, she allowed people to see and to fantasize, but did not allow access. This portrayal of female sexuality was distinctively different from the innocent, docile beauty seen centuries earlier. Olympia wittingly tested the viewers, letting them see her but not letting them in. In the painting, her hand covered entire areas “in a gesture that, compared to Venus’s relaxed, sensual pose, seems self-conscious and tense” (Bernheimer 268). Olympia was in control instead of the male viewer, who has to actually gain her permission. At first, Olympia arguably appeared “small and easily dominated, yet imperious and coldly disdainful. If her blatant readiness to be consumed as an erotic commodity [seemed] to invite objectification, her taut, self-assured, commanding pose [appeared] to defy approbation” (Bernheimer 266). She had the right to her own body; it was not controlled by anyone else. This refusal to be subservient was striking, considering that Olympia was a prostitute, whose job should be to please consumers. In this circumstance, Olympia was a negation of what was naturally considered feminine. Therefore she was “a stumbling block to the male viewer’s desire; a disobedient, morbid, inhuman body that [offered] no flattering consolation in fantasy” (Bernheimer 260). Overall, even though the bourgeoisies paid their morals and money to prostitution, it seems that they still could not attain the satisfaction of pleasure.

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