It is generally agreed that one of the first female nude was the Woman of Willendorf, figure estimated to have been made between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE. The nude in art is a genre which has been always present throughout history, from the ancient age until now. However, the way that the nude has been conceived, performed, exhibited, contemplated and accepted in the society has been changing, according to the social, philosophical and thinking tendencies of every moment.
The naked human figure in painting has been a reference point in establishing not only standards of beauty, but also in differentiating right from wrong, what was allowed and what was not. Thus, in a determinate nude we can find some standards which can reveal some specific characteristics of the society to which belong. Nevertheless, throughout history have appeared some nudes which have broken with the canons that were stipulated in its time. When Manet submitted Olympia in 1965, the painting was rejected by critics for its obvious ‘sexuality’. This essay firstly aims to examine how the ‘subject’ of the painting breaks with the tradition established by the pictorial trend of its time, particularly the Academy. Secondly, to analyse the technique used in the painting. Finally, to study some symbols used by the author.
In the first place, Manet depicted a female nude and exhibited it without any mythological or allegorical reference. Despite of the fact that some of the critics and the public were scandalized because Manet used a prostitute as a sitter for his painting, the author Rona Goffern (1997:72) admits that “Titian probably used as a model for his paintings some prostitutes”. Thus, for instance, in The Venus of Urbino, by Titian (one of the paintings in which Olympia is inspired), it can be seen that it is a nude with undoubted erotic tints. However, all this eroticism seems justified (or disguised) for the label of ‘Venus’.
From 16th century, mythological themes have been often used as an excuse and a support for the eroticism. The Birth of Venus by Cabanel, piece of work exhibited in the same year as Olympia, is representing the Roman goddess of love and does it completely naked. However, Cabanel is cautious and assures that the nuked woman does not appear as a real woman. Manet is honest in that sense. He shows a naked woman and he makes it know to the viewer. He painted a naked woman in a realistic manner.
Even in the choice of the name of the painting Manet somehow seems to emphasise into human nature of the protagonist on the painting. The Olympia name was used in the nineteenth-century Parisian society as a pseudonym for the prostitutes.
In the second place, the manner in which Manet painted the model is different from previous female nudes. In comparison with other piece of work made in 1862, The wave and the pearl by Paul Baudry, it can be seen that the picture follows the guidelines established by the Academy, drawing over color, balanced composition, proper use of perspective. However, Manet’s work seems ‘unfinished’. Although the drawing is methodical, his brushwork is fast yet certain. In addition, it is difficult to find gradations of tone in the picture. Olympia is almost black and white. Some authors suggest that the contrast of pale and dark tones might establishes a relation between female sexuality, prostitution and blackness .
Lastly, there are in the painting some symbols that evoke this manifest sexuality. For instance, the figure of the maid who brings a bouquet. On the one hand, the artist presents a woman of African origin, until then always represented as a woman belonging to a lower social stratus, dressed as a European style woman. On the other hand, he depicts a naked woman, which until then it has been always done since the conception of a Venus, as a real and working-class woman. It seems from this reversal of roles that the author is trying to provoke again. Even the black cat and bouquet of flowers delivered to Olympia appear to contain a message. Jennifer DeVere (1998:92-94) affirms that “Manet transformed orchid, flower of lust, and the black cat from hidden symbols to natural accessories for the demimondaine of the mid-19th century”.
In conclusion, Olympia is a masterpiece which was ahead of its time. In view of the evidences presented here, I would argue that Manet glimpsed the first notes of realism, painting a candid nude, away from allegories and myths. He painted a naked woman, real, live, and so he made it known to the Parisian audience. Olympia does not represent anyone but herself. And this, in the context of their position in society and artistic nude, marked a break with earlier female nudes.
DeVere, J. Impossible purities: Blackness, Femininity and Victorian Culture (Carolina del Norte: Duke University Press, 1998)
Goffen, R. Titian’s women (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)
Nead, L. The female nude: Art, obscenity and sexuality. (London: Routledge, 1993)
Noval, M. P. (2011) Blonde Venus and imagery around the black Venus
http://coloquiocine.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/maricc81a-paula.pdf (accessed 5 November 2013)
Pollock, G. Differencing the canon: feminist desire and the writing of art’s histories. (London: Routledge, 1999)
Val, A. Social perception of female nude in art (17th and 19th centuries). Painting, woman and society. (Madrid: Universidad Complutense Madrid, 2001)
 A. Val, Social perception of female nude in art (17th and 19th centuries). Painting, woman and society. (Madrid: Universidad Complutense Madrid, 2001), p. 6.
 R. Goffen, Titian’s women (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 72
 Titian, The Venus of Urbino , (1538, Uffizi Gallery Museum)
 A. Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, (1863, Musée d’Orsay)
 P. Baudry, The wave and the pearl, (1862, Museo del Prado)
 M. P. Noval, (2011) Blonde Venus and imagery around the black Venus. http://coloquiocine.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/maricc81a-paula.pdf (accessed 5 November 2013)
 J. DeVere, Impossible purities: Blackness, Femininity and Victorian Culture (Carolina del Norte: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 92-94.