Behind the Paint: ‘Olympia’ by Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet (b. 1832 – 1883 Paris) he was born to affluent parents.  His mother was the god-daughter to the Swedish Crown prince Charles Bernadotte and his father was a judge who expected his son to follow suit.  Manet had his own ideas though and tried to join the navy but failed the exams.   From 1850 -56 he studied under Thomas Couture who painted very large historical paintings.  Manet loved to copy the old masters in the Louvre.  He much admired Frans Hals, Velazquez and Goya.

He liked to paint everyday people  – cafe people, gypsies and bullfighters.  In 1863 Manet took a famous painting (Sleeping Venus  by Giorgione (b. 1477 – 1610) and recreated it in his own style.

Giorgione Sleeping Venus

When this painting was shown at the Salon 1865, it caused outrage.  It even had to be protected by attendants and eventually had to be hung higher to avoid being damaged by angry spectators!

olympia Manet
olympia Manet

Olympia’ shocked the public because she is clearly not a Goddess but a courtesan.  Her cool confident gaze meets the viewers eyes.  Her casually hanging slipper marks her impatience to be with her next ‘client’.  Monet was  able to use black in a very rich tonal way, using it to bring elegance to his work.  He loved the colour black itself and always wore it.  The flowers are from a previous admirer and not taken any notice of.  They symbolise the pleasures Olympia offers.

Olympia cat detail

The cat also stares directly at the viewer as it stretches, disturbed from its sleep by the viewers intrusion.  The painting has a bold composition with strong outlined forms.  There are hardly any shadows and not a lot of fine detail.  But Critics saw the subtle harmonies and Monet’s style as incompetent and the figure rather crude. The model for ‘Olympia’ is Victorine Meurent, who posed for Luncheon on the Grass, (The Naked lunch) and was a painter in her own right.

Portrait of Victorine Meurent by Eduouard Manet

Poor Manet had a breakdown because of the harsh criticism and constant rejection.  Although he longed for approval from the official Parisian salon, his approach was much too modern to be accepted.  He was indeed ahead of his time leaping out of realism into expressionism. But success did eventually come to him when  Durrand Ruel an art dealer bought 30 of his canvases in 1871.  He received the Legion d’Honneur just before he died.

Biography and lots of Manet’s painting here

Cat detail here

‘Olympia image and short commentary on the painting here 


8 thoughts on “Behind the Paint: ‘Olympia’ by Edouard Manet

  1. Manet is a painter whose works are an acquired taste…that I never quite developed. I like the Giorgione better…now there’s a revolutionary painter! I did, however, see Manet’s ” Bar at the Folies-Begere” in the Courtauld Institute and felt it was a memorable painting. Thanks for your post!

    1. Always a pleasure Al! I did project once called resurgence, where I took painting an gave it new life. I aged this model! Disasterous painting 😉

  2. I am glad you included him, here. When I’ve looked at his paintings and compared them to others, I had logged in my mind that I could recognize his work partly by his use of black. Voila! You mention he liked black and that makes all the difference. Thank-you, Lynda, for this tidbit I hadn’t read until you mentioned it. 🙂

    1. They called him a master of black Leslie. Glad you like what he was trying to do! Appreciated;) I’ll be visiting all my sited when I get back tomorrow

  3. i have mixed feeling regarding this artist.
    his artwork is good but it doesn’t really speak out to me.
    But i’m sure in his time he was something else

  4. Thank you for including the images of the cat and of Mlle. Victorine.
    Though I’ve seen small book illustrations of Olympia countless times,
    the kitty had always escaped my notice until this morning, when I read
    of a critic (Geronte), who mentioned a black cat in his remarks and,
    proving himself useful after 145 years, got me to study it more closely.

    (You would do well to clean up the Monet (sic) typos on this page.)

  5. Thanks Bill – I hadn’t even noticed this (and of course it didn’t show up in the proof reading) Monet for Manet……:) Glad you enjoyed the cat and Mlle Victorine though. I did a project called ‘Resurgence’ where I imagined what Victorine would look like when she was old and still posing:)

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