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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Olympia, by Manet, decrypted.

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

Her defiant look and her insolent nudity shocked all the good Parisian society who came to admire her at the Salon of 1865. Exit Venus and other goddesses! With Olympia, Manet brings the prostitute into the Pantheon of models. Let us enter without further delay into the intimacy of this icon of modernity, today preciously preserved in the Musée d'Orsay.

"Olympia? Which Olympia? "

At the salon in 1865, critic Jules Claretie, like many others, became exasperated: "Olympia? Which Olympia? A courtesan, no doubt. The identity of this naked woman, on an unmade bed with her jewels, escapes no one, her name refers to the one that brothel girls pompously borrow from Antiquity. A modern Venus in short, Victorine Meurent, "free bohemian girl, brewery runner, lover for a day" (Gustave Gefroy), coupled with a cheeky tribute to the venerated Venus of Urbino of Titian. Under the screams of the bourgeois, the prostitute makes her triumphant entry into the space reserved for the beautiful ideal.

A look of challenge

More shocking than her only nudity, Olympia only kept her mules, a hibiscus flower in her hair, and her jewelry, including this "black velvet thread."

Her head placed on this seductive body; the face is closed. She gives a challenging look full of disdain: Olympia is one of those who assume with panache the love that she can give, but also refuse…

Madam is served.

The white odalisque accompanied, to better enhance her pale skin, by the black slave is the pose of a pictorial nude that Manet appropriates to anchor it in the more trivial setting of a meeting house. Emerging from behind the curtains and dark rooms of the brothel, the servant brings a monumental bouquet, a gift from a wealthy client that Olympia, however, ignores royally.

An improper kitty.

The erect tail, ready to pounce, this caricature cat, "which leaves the imprint of its muddy paws on the bed" (Théophile Gautier), was perceived as pure provocation by the artist. Reputedly satanic animal and metaphor of the female sex, it only accentuates the fierce animality of Olympia. It offers an ironic response to the dog resting faithfully at the foot of Titian's Venus.

Divine modesty

The curtain opens: on a white bed, no doubt raised, a naked triumphantly poses, like an idol on an altar, offered and inaccessible at the same time. In addition to being a priced girl, Olympia is the master of her sexuality, which she stages.

Beaux arts


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