Artist Review: Edouard Manet’s “Olympia,” 1863

In art, the terms content, subject matter, and form are ways of describing how a piece of artwork takes a viewer from the gross to the more subtle details of the piece.  Content is defined as “the viewer’s interpretation of the subject matter or what a work of art is about”, it is the overall experience a viewer has to a work of art.  Subject matter gives the viewer more specific details to describe “the objects or events depicted”.  And finally, form refers to the technical quality of the work.  While a viewer may not relate to the content or subject matter of a particular painting, the details of the form can be admired, as can the use of all of the elements of art that allow the artist to arrive at the final piece of work.

In 1863, Manet sparked quite an uproar with the Parisian bourgeoisie when his painting debuted, at the Paris Salon, not because of the content of the work, or even necessarily because of the form he chose to use to create the work, but rather it was the subject matter that created the biggest upset.  While many critics said his broad strokes used to apply the paint were childish, they were most inflamed over the fact that Manet had chosen a common courtesan named Victorine Meurent.  The viewers were appalled at the notion that Manet would paint a “prostitute with a courtly, wealthy, or upper-class clientele” who used her body as a commodity (defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary).  Depicting a common woman, rather than an “ideal woman” who is presumably receiving a gift of flowers from a lover was not portrayed and the bourgeoisie wanted the painting removed.

The authorities refused to remove the piece, and instead placed two armed guards in the Salon to protect it.  They also shifted the placement of the painting to be hung out of reach of anyone trying to vandalize the artwork.  During this period, women were expected to be depicted as goddesses, or a biblical character from the bible, but Manet brought the reality of the common people to the upper-class by painting Meurent as a goddess in her own right.  She lies relaxed on the couch stretched out like as the goddess Venus would be.  It is interesting to note that Manet fashioned this piece of work after the Sleeping Venus by Giorgione which also caused upheaval in the art community at the time it was revealed in the Renaissance – marking a revolution in art that allowed for the depiction of nude women in paintings.  I feel then it is no coincidence then that Manet selected this work to spark a similar revolution in the Impressionist era.

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