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Comparing Manet’s Olympia with Titian’s Venus of Urbino :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Comparing Manet’s Olympia with Titian’s Venus of Urbino

Tiziano Vecelli’s Venus of Urbino


Oil on canvas, 1538

At the time of its At the time of its debut in 1583, Titian was a renowned Italian artist, controversy was minimal and it was received. Titian had actually based his painting off of another Italian master, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. Giorgione’s painting features a nude female sleeping in nature, among the hilly mountainous countryside. The painting represented an idealized existence in harmony and beauty, in the majestic sleeping form of a goddess. Titian took this image and transplanted her into the bedroom, as his work displayed a nude female reclining against a couch. This Venus, however, was not sleeping. She was causally relaxing, gazing indirectly at the viewers in quiet coyness. This “ethereal character of Venus gazing out so dreamily” drew viewers back to “medieval romance” and fantasy (Barolsky 94). Titian’s Venus was alluring in her soft, indulgent beauty. The painting as a whole was composed from subtle brush strokes, done in precise details.  Her warm, glowing tone was inviting while her adverted gaze was innocent but curious. Even though the painting was centered on the nude young woman, it was divided in half by the background. A black backdrop frames Venus’s upper body, which exemplified her elongated torso.  Her legs were relatively short in proportion, while her feet were tiny in size (Harris and Tucker n.pag.). The background was of a separate room behind the couch, where two servants were conjugated while a sleeping dog laid at her feet.

 Edouard Manet’s Olympia

Oil on canvas, 1863

Oil on canvas, 1863

Manet first displayed Olympia in 1865, at a Salon in Paris. At its introduction, it was met with much criticism and distain. In fact, it had to be moved up on the display to be showcased out of reach to “prevent it from being vandalized” (Adut 243). Unlike Venus, Olympia was not adverting her eyes from the viewers. Her gaze was direct and challenging, captivating the viewers, her posture was rigid and upright, her overall demeanor was disconcerting. Manet further accompanied this rigid composition with quick, large brushstrokes. The strokes were visible on the painting itself, showing directionality of the brush. Painters of the past were careful not to leave brushstrokes, as these were considered imperfections. In fact, Titian may have covered Venus of Urbino with as many as nine layers of paint, to create her smooth, soft portrait (Harris and Tucker n.pag.). Her figure was a stark white color, lacking in depth and perception. To an extent, “Olympia’s pale, thin, and stiff figure struck some critics… as corpselike,” all they could see was “the allusion to death… encoded in her body” (Mitchell 40). Instead of drawing the audience in, Olympia has seemingly repelled them. Manet’s painting lacked color in many ways, as its primary tones were black and white. This blatant contrast in the painting brings vivid attention to the figure of Olympia while openly contrasting the black servant and black cat in the background. The black servant attending to her was not in the foreground, but just merely situated behind Olympia, presenting her a bouquet of flowers. The flowers interestingly enough were positioned not towards Olympia’s line of vision, as they “were not meant for Olympia’s eyes, but for the viewer’s eyes and edification” (Mitchell 39). In context, the audience was Olympia’s suitor, her customer, and these flowers were a present and needed approval from the sender. Finally, similar to Venus of Urbino, at Olympia’s feet was also an animal.

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