Summary: Naturalism Throughout ‘olympia’ by Edouard Manet

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Edouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ is an oil painting created in 1863 and first displayed in 1865 in the renowned Salon in Paris . At first glance, particularly in a modern-day context, it may seem as though ‘Olympia’ is a typical portrait painting of a nude model in a fairly typical realism style. However, when this work was first accepted and displayed in the Salon, it sparked controversy of great proportions throughout the art world. This essay aims to analyse the painting and outline some of the reasons as to why it caused such friction in the art community. In particular, I will focus on how Manet diverged from the ‘artistic standards’ of the time firstly in how he styled his piece and secondly in how he represented the female form.

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It is of benefit when analysing the elements of ‘Olypmia’ to view them in a historical context. At the time of Manet’s painting, Paris was at the cultural centre of the world, and the high society art critics of the time worshipped the works of Italian renaissance painters such as Raphael and Michelangelo. These works were what is classed as realism or naturalism – paintings that attempt to emulate real life as closely as possible. In terms of the subject matter, the female nude was an extremely common focus of paintings among the fine art community and following along with the stylistic ‘rules’ of the period, these nudes would be as accurate depictions of a real life human – almost exclusively a woman – as possible, posed in such a way that has been heavily argued to be one of submission to the ‘male gaze’. This relationship between the female subject of the painting and the male viewer is reflected in Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of the man/woman relationship being one of subject/object respectively – a complete objectification of a woman with a complete removal her autonomy and agency. An acknowledgment of this standard of the nude in this period is necessary for understanding how and why ‘Olympia’ had the impact it did. The divergence from this standard that Manet took with ‘Olympia’, as mentioned before, is two-fold; there is a clear difference in both the way in which he styled his painting and also with how he composed the scene – in particular the model of the painting. In regard to how he styled the painting, as I mentioned above the standard for the time was naturalism/realism – that is, reproducing real life as accurately as possible– however, in ‘Olympia’ Manet adopts what could be crudely described as a ‘loose’ approach to the painting. What is meant by this is, where in other paintings of the period the brush strokes would be so smooth and accurate as to be essentially invisible, in ‘Olympia’ Manet uses relatively broad strokes that are left apparent to the viewer. This theme of divergence from the naturalistic style can also be seen clearly in Manet’s use of colours and tones. When comparing to other major portraiture of the period, with realistic skin tones and attention to depth and perspective, Olympia stands out, described as being flat and washed out . When first presented in the Salon, the painting received very strong criticisms in this regard with one journalist, Felix Deriege, stating: ‘her face is stupid, her skin cadaverous, … she does not have a human form.” . This one quote can be seen as summary of the majority of the criticisms Manet’s work received, with a vast number of critics and journalists commenting on the disgust they felt at the way Olympia had been painted. These criticisms are an embodiment of the collective aversion the art society had to such an obvious break from the long tradition of paintings, particularly nudes, that were prominent in French art in the period.

As I mentioned in the introduction, another key area to focus on with Manet’s work is in how he differed from tradition in his representation of the female form. When analysing traditional nude portraiture, one finds that the woman is put on display, as an erotic object, for the sexual pleasure of the male viewer, and combining this with Clark’s analysis of post-Renaissance European nudes discussing the submissiveness and even inviting nature of the female figures, we can establish the role of the woman in a traditional nude – an erotic object that participates an invites the male audience to receive sexual pleasure in viewing her. The model in Olympia represents a distinct break from this tradition in numerous ways but important ones to note are her expression and her posture. The models gaze in Olympia is much more direct and dominant than those of traditional nudes, removing to an extent the idea of submissiveness, and with regard to her posture it follows a similar theme. She lays in a manner much more ‘rigid’ compared to the relaxed models of traditional nudes, with one hand placed firmly across her crotch – presenting an idea of autonomy and self-ownership that is not found in other works.

By combining the physical attributes of the painting with ones of a symbolic nature, one can view Olympia as being a work that represents a dissolution of the traditional, classical style of realism or illusionism, and sought to re-establish the art of painting as a medium for an artist to represent their view of the world, in their own ways, free from societal expectation. French Salon painting in the nineteenth century was focused highly on revisiting the classical past and recreating its ideals and forms and making them relevant for the present time . Manet’s Olympia was a revolutionary piece that called out this looping process of classical dedication and demanded change, declaring the classical past as no longer relevant in the modern art world. Olympia represents an evolution in the ideal of artistic beauty from stagnant, categorical and objectively definable to ever-changing, free and wholly subjective, and a shift in the common view of what art is – a shift from a traditional view of art being replication and expertise in artistic skill, reserved for the talented few to a view of art as an individual’s expression and freedom. As John Dewey summarises well, “Art is not the possession of the few who are recognized writers, painters, musicians; it is the authentic expression of any and all individuality”.  

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