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How Olympia was a Scandal :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

How Olympia was a Scandal

How was Olympia was a scandal?
With the magnitude of resemblances between both paintings, it was the distinctions between them that were significant. In fact, these distinctions were so substantial that they can be attributed to the reason how Olympia was a scandal when Venus of Urbino was not.


Olympia’s face

The Title.
One of the first differences that was easily recognizable, but not entirely distinguishable was the title. The title, in essence the subject’s name, brought completely opposite connotations. In calling his model Venus, Titian made her the mythical Roman goddess of beauty. By doing this, he was able to disguise the idea of a female body in a bedroom, as nudity took form only in nature previously. Nudity was one of art’s most enduring and universal subjects, a very classical tradition that depicted the absolute beauty of the human form. The title became protective, making a reclining nude “an acceptable subject matter” (Harris and Zucker n.pag.). The audience could gaze and contemplate ideas of beauty without worrying about impropriety, as her body’s sole function was to be admired. Manet’s title of Olympia also had mythological connotations, it was the mountain on which Greek gods and goddesses resided. However, this is not the origin of the name Olympia. During the 19th century, “Olympia was a common term for a courtesan,” a high class-prostitute. In addition, the painting provided evidence to her occupation: “the women’s jewels, her sexual confidence, and the posh but not altogether respectable surroundings” (Adut 242). Furthermore, the model for Olympia, Victorine Meurent, was also rumored to be a prostitute. While this occupation has always been undesirably perceived, by the 19th century “connections had been established among prostitutes, disease, and death, and such concerns had grown extreme” (Mitchell 40). Aside from this, Olympia’s name was still not divine. This lack of divinity as well as compounding negative connotations scandalized the masses. Without the safeguard of a proper title, the painting was just an ordinary naked woman, which made it easily condemnable.


Olympia’s hand

The Nude.
A first glance a viewer would not readily notice a title, but rather the style and colors used by each artist. Titian’s Venus of Urbino took on a warm, welcoming tone. Her skin was soft and smooth, lending the viewers to see the beauty inherent in the painting.  Manet’s Olympia took an opposite approach. Instead of warmth, she projected a slight hostility. Her skin was a pasty and pale, seemingly devoid of the life and wonder found in beauty. Yet if Olympia could not be considered beautiful, then she was only seen as a woman with sensual and erotic intentions. This notion of candid sexuality and the audience’s reactions resulted in a distinction between nudity and nakedness in art. Titian’s Venus was a nude figure; however Manet’s Olympia was a naked woman. This was an important discrepancy to note, for it characteristically defined the each painting. The naked presumably “was deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame, while a nude, as a work of art, has no such connotations” (Clark 145). While nudity implied being the pinnacle of human beauty, nakedness was the nadir of human disgrace. This separation of the artistic style allowed Manet’s painting to be seen as one of the first real modern works, for his portrayal of Olympia’s lack of clothing was not hidden under any false pretenses. She was “very much flesh and blood with bodily hair and imperfections, her unglamorousness granting the demimondaine’s sexuality a rawer quality” (Adut 243). Manet bared her body for the audience to observe without the expression of beauty and refinement found in nudity. The French were appalled that the female figure was displayed in such a way. There was no hidden veil, nothing but skin. They found her undisguised, fully disclosed body disturbing.


The Black Servant

The Servant.
Besides the main subject, both paintings had secondary characters that contributed to the painting’s overall theme. In Venus of Urbino, the background featured two faceless servants readying dresses for Venus. One servant was digging in a box, assumingly full of clothes, while the other was standing with a dress draped over her body. They were unaware of the audience, and were casually preforming their everyday task. At Venus’s feet laid a sleeping dog symbolizing fidelity and domesticity of the home (Moffitt 22). The oblivious servants and sleeping dog indicated that as a whole, the audience was glimpsing at a moment not usually seen. This was therefore was a rare instance of the splendid wonders of human beauty, captured through paint. In Manet’s recreation, Olympia’s servant was not subtly positioned in the background, but stood right beside Olympia.


The Flowers

The Flowers.
The servant was looking at Olympia, as she presented a bouquet of flowers.The flowers were not directed towards Olympia, but to the viewers. Following the social idea of the flâneur, the viewer was in fact Olympia’s suitor, her customer, and these flowers were a present. Therefore the servant was asking for the viewer’s approval of the flowers.


The Black Cat

The Cat.
Manet painted a black cat standing in an upright, perturbed position. Linked with the superstition of black cats, this animal had been compared to the devil and evil omens (Moffitt 21). In addition, the cat’s extreme posture had been implicated to resemble the male sex organ. This implies that Olympia’s suitor does not have the aim of romance and enchantment, but only desired her body. This idea was further supported with  All these factors compounded, demonstrated how Olympia was a scandal.

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