In the second half of the 19th century, art, and most notably art in France, had started to develop beyond the realm of what is generally referred to as ‘academic art’. That is to say, art which was approved by academics to be demonstrations of great technical prowess and humility. For the academics of the time, and all throughout history, the representation of divine mythology or portraits of the bourgeois and royals were generally the only subject matters worthy to be on canvas. So, as you can imagine, the change of aesthetics we see at the very end of the19th century was not approved over night. Here we look at one of the most beautiful and defiant works of art in that century, Olympia by Edouard Manet.
When first unveiled at the ‘Salon’ of 1865, this painting was categorized as profoundly shocking and vulgar. The controversy was such that galleries with the audacity to expose it hired policemen to protect it from vandalism. But why would a public accustomed to seeing nudes on canvas for over 500 years react this way?
Well, first let us acknowledge the way she is painted. Manet has rejected the entirety of his artistic education. His brush strokes are broad; the shapes are simple giving this painting what was described at the time as ‘childish and unskilled’ aesthetic. Secondly, who is this woman? More importantly what does she do? She is obviously no goddess, her beauty is too imperfect – her features are bland, and face common. To put it bluntly, she is a prostitute. Her name, given in the title of the painting, was one of the most commonly used names by the courtesans of Paris at this time. This is why this painting was so shocking – Manet was subjecting his audience to to a type a realism with no precedent in the artistic world.
This painting is not ambiguous. One is not witnessing a meditation on beauty but rather a confrontation of the sexuality of the female form. Viewers have walked into a very identifiable Parisian apartment where this young woman is laying there, staring. Although her cat is startled by their presence, she is not. Instead, she lies on her bed, thinking. But perhaps viewers were too eager to come in, as we can see that her maid is bringing her flowers, a gift we can only assume to be from one of her many customers…
However, shock was not the true intention of Manet. Manet tried to release his viewers from the illusion created by academia surrounding nudity and art in general – the illusion that art can only provide satisfaction through meditations of the sublime. This painting is a call for honesty and realism, and for artists everywhere to paint the beauty of everyday life. This of course, marked the birth of Impressionism, and with it some of the most beautiful and evocative paintings in history.