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Visual Arts

Edouard Manet's Olympia

When Edouard Manet's painting Olympia is hung in the Salon of Paris in 1865, it is met with jeers, laughter, criticism, and disdain. It is attacked by the public, the critics, the newspapers. Guards have to be stationed next to it to protect it, until it is moved to a spot high above a doorway, out of reach.

With Olympia, Manet rebels against the art establishment of the time. Taking Titian's Venus of Urbino as his model, Manet creates a work he thinks will grant him a place in the pantheon of great artists. But instead of following the accepted practice in French art, which dictates that paintings of the figure are to be modeled on historical, mythical, or biblical themes, Manet chooses to paint a woman of his time -- not a feminine ideal, but a real woman, and a courtesan at that. And he paints her in his own manner: in place of the smooth shading of the great masters, his forms are painted quickly, in rough brushstrokes clearly visible on the surface of the canvas. Instead of the carefully constructed perspective that leads the eye deep into the space of the painting, Manet offers a picture frame flattened into two planes. The foreground is the glowing white body of Olympia on the bed; the background is darkness.

In painting reality as he sees it, Manet challenges the accepted function of art in France, which is to glorify history and the French state, and creates what some consider the first modern painting. His model, Victorine Meurent, is depicted as a courtesan, a woman whose body is a commodity. While middle-and- upper class gentlemen of the time may frequent courtesans and prostitutes, they do not want to be confronted with one in a painting gallery. A real woman, flaws and all, with an independent spirit, stares out from the canvas, confronting the viewer, something French society in 1865 is perhaps not ready to face.

After Manet's death, the painter Claude Monet organizes a fund to purchase Olympia and offers it to the French state. It now hangs in the Musée D'Orsay in Paris, where it is considered a priceless masterpiece of 19th French painting.

To learn more about the painting, watch The Shock of the Nude: Manet's Olympia, the second film in the 4-part Culture Shock series.

Edouard Manet's Olympia shocked with its frank depiction of the nude on first display in Paris in 1865. See for yourself?

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