The Merit of Manet’s Feminism in His Painting 'Olympia' by Edouard Manet

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Édouard Manet was a French impressionist painter in the 1800s who invoked the wrath of Parisian critics by not only breaking free of conventional methods, but also by creating some of the most scandalous works of art in his time. He painted emboldened, naked, sickly-looking prostitutes with eyes that pierced the viewer (1). He broke all the rules and stirred the art scene of Paris into a frenzy. Today, some may claim that Édouard Manet created these works to make a bold, feminist statement. Through the lenses of modern feminism, one must view some of Manet’s choices with a critical eye and decipher if Manet’s presumed attempt at making a feminist statement holds any merit.

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As stated previously, Édouard Manet’s more scandalous works centered around female prostitutes. Olympia was one of his nudes featuring a prostitute as the main subject of the painting. The piece was first painted in 1863 and made its public debut in the 1865 Paris Salon (1). The forefront of the piece is of course Olympia herself, modeled by prominent Parisian prostitute Victorine Meurent (7). She is posed in the style of Titian’s The Venus of Urbino. The French of the 19th century were by no means sexually repressed, but it was an unspoken social cue at the time that sexual discourse was to be carried out in secret only (6). One can imagine the upset such a sexually provocative piece would cause when put on display at a salon. The act of posing a well-known prostitute similarly to a goddess-like figure is scandalous itself, but Édouard Manet pushes this even further. The prostitute’s skin is not rosy and full of life, she is not the plump and warm picture of perfection seen in Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Her skin is a cold and pasty white, with undertones of green that indicate a sickliness. A black maid extends flowers to the prostitute, with the strong implication that it was a gift from a client. Sitting at the end of the prostitute’s bed is a black cat with an ugly, cock-eyed face. The most offensive part of all is the prostitute’s gaze. Olympia does not shyly gaze at the gazer from the side. She does nothing to hide her face or her eyes. She sits upright, staring straight back at the man that would be gazing at her. Olympia, a nude prostitute, is challenging gazers by staring right back at them and taking hold of the sexual energy of the situation. It is an example of a low-class woman of her time stepping out of her place by not offering up her subservience to a male, and in the nineteenth century a woman would be deeply shamed by society for such an act (4 p. 26).

Luncheon on the Grass is another nude created by Manet. This piece was the predecessor to Olympia, although unlike Olympia it was rejected from exhibition in the Paris Salon and instead exhibited publicly in the Salon des Refuses in 1863 (8). Prominent prostitute Victorine Meurent modeled for this piece as well (7 pg 1), and is once again the prominently pale woman gazing right back at you. Unlike Olympia, other men were featured in this piece. The presence of the clothed men amongst nude women only further suggests the women’s status as prostitutes or low-class women, as no respectable woman of a higher class in the 19th century would dare reveal her nude body in public let alone to multiple men. The woman in this picture seems to be doing so happily, and stares back at the viewer with an almost-triumphant look on her face.

Prostitutes gazing back at the gazers continued to be a recurring theme in Manet’s work, even in works that were not quite nudes. Nana is a piece Manet created in 1877 that was modeled by prostitute Henriette Hausser (8 p 53). Nana is in her undergarments applying makeup in front of a mirror, while a well-dressed man who is presumably a customer or suitor looks on from the couch. The corset makes her body look slender yet curvy, increasing the sex appeal of the subject. Nana is much sexier and more appealing than Olympia or the women pictured in Luncheon on the grass, because she does not have those sickly green undertones in the paint that would denote disease. Her skin is warm and rosy, and full of life. The way Nana stares back at the viewers is suggestive. She sees the viewer staring at her barely clothed body and is unashamed. Her faint smile certainly suggests she’s not unhappy about it. The way she stares back almost welcomes the gaze of onlookers.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The main subject of the painting is a woman who stares directly at us, but somehow her gaze seems like it is a million miles away. Her eyes are glazed over, and she seems largely disinterested in the interaction. She is clearly working at the bar as a barmaid. She is a beautiful woman but lacks provocative features unlike the previously discussed pieces. All of the pieces discussed have a few things in common. All of them feature women gazing at the viewers, yet none of them truly depict the gaze of a 19th century woman. They all fall victim to the male gaze. That is why they are not feminist pieces.

In all discussed pieces, the female subject’s gaze, body, and sexuality are all owned by both the male who created them and the males who gaze at them. To understand why Manet’s works are not a true example of the female gaze, one must first fully understand the meaning of what the female and male gaze is in this context. The gaze is the way viewers see the subject and how the subject is presented from the perspective of the artist (4). There are gendered gazes, as in the female gaze and the male gaze. The male gaze is a gaze that seeks to objectify women (4). In male centric visual media, a woman’s purpose is to serve as an “other” for men. She is something less, an object to use to project desire and not hold her own importance or her own meaning (3 p.14-15). She holds only the meaning that has been given to her by man.

Real women felt the effects of the male gaze in the 19th century. They had internalized the objectification that was consistently present throughout cultural works and media. They were always being watched by men. Their reputation and virtue were always at stake when outside of the home, as one misstep could cause their life to crumble. They had to follow the expectations that had been set for them under the oppressive male gaze. They had to follow the vision the males in their lives had for them, rather than the vision they might have had for themselves. Women believed that they were less because their society and the culture around them had reinforced that ideology.

Manet was no stranger to the objectification of women. The previously mentioned Nana is of course prime example of this objectification. Manet projects both his desires and the desires of a male audience onto the female subject. Another example would be his piece titled Nymph Surprise. The piece is a complete contradiction to Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. The female subject in this painting is beautiful and rosy. The model is depicted as a nymph, a female deity. She is the opposite of a sickly and pale prostitute. The nymph is also quite shocked and shy, and is attempting to conceal her nakedness from the viewer with a robe. The nymph is ashamed to have her beautiful nude body be seen, as a pure 19th century woman should. She is everything that Manet wanted her to be, she carries out his vision to be an otherworldly but pure beauty for male gazers to lust after. She is a vessel for projecting desires of men. Even though the female in Nymph Surprise is gazing back, she does not have meaning of her own. Her gaze only serves Manet’s purposes of following expectations for how a perfect, goddess-like female should behave. She only has the meaning that is given to her.

Even though the sickly and strikingly real prostitutes in Manet’s other pieces are not beautiful goddesses and offer only a challenge, they also have no meaning that is their own. They only have the meaning that was given to them by men. The role of the women in Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass is to serve as a sexual spectacle. They have broken social cues laid out by men, and they are not ashamed of it or their naked bodies. Why must the women Manet depicts as having sexual agency also be putting themselves on display for men? Why can’t a woman with sexual agency be something other than a prostitute? These pieces were made with the intention to shock and excite men, because it was a picture depicting women breaking their rules. It caters to a male audience and is part of a male’s vision for a woman.

Common women of 19th century France did not necessarily care for being sexually brazen either. Feminine works are often ignored by the public, because we often do not view them as an equal to other traditional 19th-century art. It does not fit the criteria that’s been established. The rules and norms that have been laid out by what we consider as “high art” has dictated that much feminine visual work of the time is nothing more than “quaint” or charming. (p. 171-172). Most women of the 19th century were capable artists, even putting together whole albums just for themselves or to share with their friends and families. 19th-century women faced gender constraints that limited the art education they received and the subjects they could depict, but women artists embraced these challenges and their subjects with enthusiasm. They placed their own values and beliefs in their works. Often their subjects were family and social connections.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, a female impressionist artist of the 19th century, was a special case when it comes to 19th-century women and high art. Cassatt gives us that rare insight into the lives of real 19th-century women painted from a 19th-century woman’s perspective. Depicted is Mary Cassatt’s painting titled In the Loge. It has both an example of the male gaze in action and a strong female gaze. An image of a woman crafted by a man for other men to view is incapable of containing a true female gaze.  

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