Edouard Manet’s Olympia Painting

Review of Edouard Manet’s Olympia

Edouard Manet’s Olympia seems to intentionally provoke the debates regarding the quality and purpose of this painting. Is it possible to perceive Olympia seriously and positively when, in this work, Manet tries to represent a vulgar and nude young woman whose glance is indifferent, but intentions are rather clear? It is also necessary to pay attention to the fact that Manet referred to traditional themes of representing Venus and young women with their Black slaves that are typical of the classical art tradition. The message of Olympia can be mostly considered offensive for the reputable public of the Salon.

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Art pieces need to stimulate certain feelings in viewers because of the beauty of represented objects and the technique used by an artist. However, there are no tries to idealize the presented image of Olympia or depict her in a more acceptable and pleasant way (Harrison, Wood, & Gaiger, 1998). Still, Olympia’s body and draperies are expressed in delicate colors, using gentle brushstrokes, and all the details of the background are noticeable (“Edouard Manet – Olympia,” 2014). However, the traditional canons of painting are violated with reference to this art piece because of accentuating the immorality of the woman depicted with the help of portraying her impudent nudity in pale yellowish colors.

Not all spectators of Olympia can be viewed as satisfied with its quality and value while referring to the standards of the 1800s in painting and art. The woman’s posture, glance, and overall situation seem to embarrass the audience and make it laugh. Thus, Olympia can be regarded as Manet’s attempt to surprise and provoke the public using the surroundings of the Salon and making people discuss his unusual and controversial painting.

The Painter of Modern Life

In the section “The Artist, Man of the World, Man of the Crowd, and Child” of The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire discusses the nature of a genial artist referring to Constantin Guys. According to Baudelaire (1964), works of true artists are usually signed not only by their initials but also by their souls. Furthermore, such artists as Guys need to be viewed as men of the world because of their candid interest in the world around them. Thus, an artist usually wants to understand everything that can happen all over the globe, and his interests are not restricted only to politics and morals.

Baudelaire also describes artists while referring to Guys as almost children for whom convalescence can be typical. Thus, in this context, Baudelaire (1964) views convalescence as an artist’s return to his childhood in visions and emotions. However, in contrast to children, artists have “sound nerves,” and “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will” (Baudelaire, 1964, p. 8). From this perspective, artists are like children who have the power to realize their curiosity and express it in works. Additionally, Guys like other artists are not part of the crowd, but he passionately observes the crowd and reflects it in his works. Therefore, for Baudelaire, artists are those persons who have the gift of “seeing” and expressing what they can notice.

In the next section titled “Modernity,” Baudelaire also explains that he views artists as searching for modernity. In this context, modernity means the transient part of art in contrast to its eternal part. Thus, artists usually tend to reflect their vision of modernity in their works, but it is not appropriate to refer to old masters’ art pieces in order to understand modern beauty. Furthermore, for each period or era, modernity is different, and it has “its own gait, glance, and gesture” (Baudelaire, 1964, p. 13). Baudelaire concludes that Guys followed a specific path of an artist when he started his way as an observer of life and then began to use specific means to express life in his works.

Modernism and Its Origins in the 19th Century

In “Modernism and Its Origins in the 19th Century,” Hunter, Jacobus, and Wheeler (2000) state that the period of modern art in the Western world can be discussed as starting since the 18th century. Furthermore, it can be associated with the beginning of the French Revolution or the invention of photography that influenced art as a powerful tool of expression for artists. However, most researchers note that Modernism started in 1886 with the opening of the Independents Salon and the development of the Impressionists’ movement.

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Impressionists tried to search for true art but not in the realistic expression of natural objects and the world around them. Instead, they proclaimed the freedom of expression using innovative techniques based on representing artists’ feelings and visions. Edouard Manet influenced Impressionists as a painter who questioned academic standards of Renaissance art, its values, and rules (Hunter et al., 2000). As a result, he was interested in translating traditional themes into modern ones while applying the principle of irony like it can be noticed in Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe and Olympia. Thus, rejecting the classical order in depicting objects and portraying people, Manet proposed his unique variant of coherence (Hunter et al., 2000). The focus was on representing the individual temperament of the artist and the depicted object using quite unusual approaches to painting. Manet referred to authenticity and realism while transforming traditional academic formulas in his new art pieces, rather provocative and creative in their nature.

Impressionists, such as Degas, Monet, and Cezanne, were focused on abandoning the principles of academic art typical of the Renaissance in spite of using its classical images and symbols in their paintings. Thus, Modernists tried to reconsider the themes typical of Renaissance art and present them in a new and fresh form. Artists were interested in landscape painting and Plein-air working in order to present their unique vision of the nature and world around them (Hunter et al., 2000). Furthermore, Realism and Naturalism developed during that period in order to accentuate artists’ independence, and they often used rather aggressive techniques and brushwork to emphasize their views (Hunter et al., 2000). From this perspective, Impressionists turned realistic depictions into experimental ones, accentuating brushstrokes and impressions. However, in the 1880s, Impressionism faced a crisis, and in the 1910s, Post-Impressionism developed.

Various Authors on Manet’s Olympia

Edouard Manet’s Olympia provoked many debates developed by critics who observed the painting in the Salon of 1865. Many critics discussed not only the quality and effect of Olympia on the audience but also the personality of the artist and his traits that could influence the production of such a painting to explain his intentions. The variety of negative opinions regarding Manet’s Olympia needs to be discussed in detail.

The majority of critics used rather abusive terms in order to represent their personal opinion on the value of this painting for art and society. According to A. J. Du Pays, the paintings by Manet exhibited in the Salon were ugly and considered as “offensive eccentricities” (Harrison et al., 1998, p. 514). Moreover, Amedee Cantaloupe and “Pierrot” chose to compare depicted Olympia to a female monkey. Felix Jahyer noted that Manet’s intentions in this work could not be perceived seriously. Furthermore, the authors of the critique also accentuated the grotesque of the painting and emphasized Manet’s avoidance of following the rules of art tradition (Harrison et al., 1998). Referring to Manet’s Olympia, Theophile Gautier said, “Here there is nothing, … but the desire to attract attention at any price” (Harrison et al., 1998, p. 517). This opinion was also supported by other authors who analyzed the qualities of this particular painting.


Those authors who were inclined to regard Olympia in positive terms mentioned not only the strengths of the painting, but also discussed the personality of Manet. Gautier mentioned that, in spite of the overall effect of Manet’s paintings, the artist has many followers, and his impact on other artists and the public cannot be ignored. Additionally, Gonzague Privat stated, “the crude public … understands nothing at all of this art which is too abstract for its intelligence … because it has been conceived and painted by a sincere man” (Harrison et al., 1998, p. 517). These positive comments were rather rare because the public discussed Olympia as offensive due to its message and the manner of expressing the artist’s intention.


Baudelaire, C. (1964). The painter of modern life: And other essays. (J. Mayne, Trans.). London, UK: Phaidon Press.

Edouard Manet – Olympia [Image]. (2014). Web.

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Harrison, C., Wood, P. W., & Gaiger, J. (Eds.). (1998). Art in theory 1815-1900: An anthology of changing ideas. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Hunter, S., Jacobus, J. M., & Wheeler, D. (2000). Modern art: Painting, sculpture, architecture (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

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