Between 1853 and 1856 Manet toured Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands and became influenced by the Dutch painter Frans Hals, and the Spanish painters Diego Velázquez and Francisco José de Goya.
By 1856 Manet had set up his own studio and was on his way to becoming one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life. He was also a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism.
One of Manet's early works was Luncheon on the grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) which was rejected by the Paris Salon. The Paris Salon was France's official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and based in Paris. Between 1748 and 1890 it was arguably the greatest art event in the Western world.
Manet did however display Luncheon on the Grass into the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) which was set up by Napolean III to show the 2,783 paintings rejected by The Salon. The reaction to the painting was mixed and some of the criticism was based on the lack of interaction between the nude woman and the fully dressed men. It was suggested that the painting depicted the Bois de Boulogne, an area of Paris known as a place of prostitution (it still is today!) Whilst prostitution was rife in France and everyone knew it, it was still considered a taboo subject for a painting. Manet waited two years before submitting Olympia to the Salon. It has been suggested that the jurors at The Salon did not want to appear prudish or were censoring art or that the decided to show Olympia to 'show up' Manet, especially after the negative critisism of Luncheon on the grass.
Olympia was successful in being accepted by The Salon in 1865 where it caused huge scandal and outrage. Whilst painters had depicted prostitution before now and Luncheon on the grass was possibly depicting a prostitute Olympia was definitely a prostitute, not just that but she waslooking defiantly and unapologetically at the viewer. It is thought that this was the first time a female nude had been shown in a major work of art not as a mythological or generic figure but as an individual woman, grappling with the practical realities of her time and place.
Inspired by Titian's Venus of Urbino (see below) the shock of Olympia was not her nakedness but the details that symbolised she was a prostitute. The orchid in her hair, her bracelet, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies, are symbols of wealth and sensuality. An orchid often denotes luxury; Olympia is a high class prostitute, or part of the demi-monde. The black ribbon around her neck, in stark contrast with her pale flesh, and her cast-off slipper underline the voluptuous atmosphere. "Olympia" was a name associated with prostitutes in 1860s Paris.
The black servant seems to be being ignored by Olympia as she presents her with a bouquet of flowers. Maybe they are from a client and she is tired of his keenness or persistence. Or maybe she receives so many flowers she doesn't care for them any more. Personally I would like more flowers!
When the painting was displayed at The Salon some visitors had to be restrained and the gallery had to hire two policemen to guard the painting. It was described as 'shocking' despite the female nude not being a new subject in art. It's critics claimed it was the unabashed and strident attitude Olympia seems to have and the fact that she didn't seem ashamed or impoverished (if you don't have to do sex work why do it at all unless you are a bad woman!) A poor woman forced into sex work elicits sympathy, a strident one does not. How much has really changed?
There is such a limited number of female artists for me to cover so I feel it is important to mention the models. Often painters used prostitutes or certainly women in loose morals as models because 'respectable women would not pose naked. In the case of Manet's Olympia whilst the subject is certainly a prostitute the model was not.
There appears to be only one surviving painting by Victorine Meurent; Palm Sunday a painting of a girl holding a palm leaf. It is said after her death many of her works, along with her guitar were destroyed on a bonfire when her house was cleared. It feels very sad that she didn't get much recognition as either a model or an artist.
Manet died in 1883 after his left foot was amputated due to gangrene. He was also said to have syphilis. The fact Victorine lived until 1927 means their relationship probably wasn't sexual as was rumoured at the time she was his muse.
Olympia is displayed at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.