July 2009

Rethinking Manet’s "Olympia"

This post introduced me to this interesting article in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide on Manet’s Olympia (1863, shown left). Phylis A. Floyd examines why Manet was so upset at the critical reception of his painting in the Salon of 1865. Floyd believes that Manet would not have been upset if he had intended this painting to be controversial (a belief widely held by modern art historians).

Floyd posits some interesting ideas about why Manet was upset. Instead of the popular belief that Manet was portraying a prositute (who brazenly and defiantly stares at the viewer of the painting), Floyd thinks that Olympia is a depiction of a mistress. She points out some interesting details like Olympia’s bracelet (which may be a gift from her lover) and flower (which she identifies as a camellia – a flower associated with a woman who is faithful to a single lover). In addition, Floyd mentions that Olympia was originally posed in a more modest position (see a red chalk Study for Olympia below). If Olympia was originally intended to be in a more modest position, it seems to me that Manet did not intend his painting to be so brazen and confrontational (at least when the painting was in its early, conceptual stages).

In addition, Floyd argues that the physiognomy and body type of Olympia were intended to portray Marguerite Bellanger, the mistress of Napoleon III at the time. According to Floyd, Manet was trying to gain favor with the emperor by painting a portrait of his mistress. Although it is known that Victorine Meurent posed for Olympia, Floyd points out that the facial features are blank in the study, which Floyd thinks is an indication that Manet intended to paint the facial details of Bellanger from a photograph.

I think that Floyd has some really interesting ideas. However, I’m not sure if I would base so much of my argument on the assumption that the flower is actually a camellia (which ties into the connection with Bellanger, whose relationship with Napoleon III made her “the most famous camélia of the day.”).1 Is there really enough detail in the painting for one to correctly identify the flower? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Overall, though, I think that Floyd brings up some interesting questions. They’ve made me rethink and question some of the popular interpretations of this painting.

1 Phylis A. Floyd, “The Puzzle of Olympia,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 3, vol. 1 (Spring 2004); available from; Internet; accessed 16 July 2009. See also [Léopold Stapleaux ?], Les courtisanes du Second Empire, (Bruxelles: Office de Publicité, 1871), 56.


Pietro Lorenzetti’s Kitchen Scene

Pietro Lorenzetti, The Last Supper, c. 1315-19

I think that the kitchen scene on the left of Lorenzetti’s The Last Supper is really interesting. This scene shows a man washing dishes, and it looks like he might be scraping food off of the dish to give to a dog. I read this morning that there is no biblical source to justify the inclusion of this domestic scene.1

I realize that this may be true. This may be just a domestic scene. However, this scene made me think of the biblical story of the woman of Canaan, who asks Jesus to bless her daughter. Since this woman was a Gentile, Jesus answered that he couldn’t extend a blessing and metaphorically “cast it to dogs” (Matthew 15:26), because Christ’s mission was to the house of Israel. This woman persists in asking for a blessing, and tells Jesus that “the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27). Would the 14th century Italians (i.e. Gentiles) have been interested in this story? I imagine that they would have viewed themselves as the Gentiles who were beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice (as symbolized in the sacrament of the Last Supper). I wonder if Lorenzetti’s kitchen scene and depiction of the dog eating scraps could allude to this passage.

Any thoughts?

1 Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods, eds., The Changing Status of the Artist, (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 52.

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Chuck Close’s Wheelchair Painting

Many art history students are introduced to Chuck Close’s art with this painting:

Big Self Portrait, 1967-1968

Close is really interesting because of his painting theories and technique. Instead of just transferring a photograph into paint on a canvas, Close thinks that painting is a systematic and intellectual exercise. His work is not just about transferring images – he is transferring “photographic information into painted information“).1 I think it’s especially interesting that this systematic approach can be further seen in Close’s choice of large-scale canvases – they are basically same size (9′ x 7′).2 Although he is best described as a photorealist, this interest in systematic and intellectual art makes Close a little different from his colleagues.Anyhow, a conversation last night reminded me that Close’s later work is stylistically different from his early portraits. In 1988, a collapsed spinal artery left Close nearly paralyzed. Luckily, he has been able to continue painting from his wheelchair with a brush strapped to his partially mobile hand. Although Close was veering towards a more lively style before 1988, his current condition ensures that he cannot paint in the meticulous manner required for his early style. Personally, though, I really like Close’s later work. It’s dynamic and interesting. I also think that it’s fun to zoom in on Close’s later paintings until the portraits are unrecognizable; they become a myriad of colorful, stylized swirls and whorls.

You can see how much Close’s style has changed by looking at this self portrait:

Chuck Close, "Self-Portrait," 1997. Oil on canvas, 102 x 84" (259.1 x 213.4 cm)

Chuck Close, “Self-Portrait,” 1997. Oil on canvas, 102 x 84″ (259.1 x 213.4 cm)

I think it’s really awesome that Close has been able to continue his career and artistic vision (he even continues to paint on large-scale canvases!). You can watch a video of him working below (and read more of the CBS story here).

Pretty impressive stuff, huh? Which Chuck Close style do you like more? His early style or later style? Or neither?

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 1056 (italics added for emphasis).

2 Ibid.


Women Who Read = Dangerous

My mother-in-law owns a really great book called Women Who Read Are Dangerous. The book is a compilation of artwork (mostly paintings) that depict women reading (or holding books). I think that the idea of this book is really fun, and it made me (jokingly) think about the plausibility of creating a Washer Women Are Dangerous book!

I particularly am struck by how many of these paintings fit into the idea of rejecting the male gaze. There are so many paintings that depict women actively involved in the act of reading. Instead of inviting a (male) viewer of the painting to look at them, these women are completely absorbed in their books. They deflect the gaze of the viewer and move the focus of the painting to the book or letter. Curiously, a lot of the reading women appear in profile view, which is similar to Barbara Kruger’s Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (I’ve written more about Kruger’s work and the male gaze here). Fun stuff. It’s also fun to think about the male gaze and think about another photograph in this book: Eve Arnold’s 1952 photograph Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses (yes, Marylin actually was reading that classical piece of literature!). In some ways, I think one could argue that the pin-up actress was rejecting the male gaze in this photograph.

Anyhow, here are a couple of fun pieces that also appear in the book:

Carl Larsson, Karin Reading, 1904
(Not only is she rejecting/deflecting the male gaze by being in profile, but her hand is covering part of her face!)

Pieter Janssens Elinga, Woman Reading, 1668-70

Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine, c. 1204

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, c. 1663-64

Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Prophetess Anna (Rembrandt’s Mother), 1631

Walter Launt Palmer, Afternoon in the Hammock, 1882
(FYI – The greens in this painting are a lot more vibrant than in this reproduction)

There are a lot of other great paintings in this book that don’t have reproductions online, since they belong to private collections. You should get this book and check these paintings out, whether you are or aren’t a “dangerous woman” that likes to read!

What do you think about the idea of the male gaze in connection with these paintings? Do you have other favorite works of art that depict women reading?


Taweret, Egyptian Childbirth, and LOST

It’s no secret that I love the TV show LOST. During the past couple seasons, ruins of a four-toed statue have been shown on the LOST island, but a full depiction of the mysterious statue was not shown until last season – and it can be deduced that the original statue on the island is a depiction of Taweret, the Egyptian goddess.

I know that I just barely did a post on ancient female fertility figurines, but I’m going to continue in this vein and talk about Taweret statues too. Taweret is the goddess who protects women who are pregnant or in childbirth. (If you watch LOST, you can see how the destruction of this statue ties into the problems women experience with pregnancy on the island.) The figurine on the left (assumed to be Taweret) is from the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 332-30 BC).1 The combination of human, crocodile, lion and hippopotamus features create a fearsome combination – Taweret was supposed to scare off demons and other deadly creatures that posed a threat to the mother and baby during childbirth.

Egyptian women also wore Taweret amulets to protect them during childbirth. I particularly like this one.

And sorry if you don’t like depictions of childbirth, but I had to include this interesting relief from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera (ca. 304-30 BC; Egyptian Museum, Cairo). This relief shows a squatting woman in childbirth (using a birth stool), while being assisted by two goddesses (possibly Hathor and Taweret, although I don’t think either figure distinctly looks like Taweret). It’s an interesting relief, though, huh? It’s thought that this birth position was an alternative, possibly less-frequent method that the ancient Egyptian woman used for childbirth.2

Anyhow, back to Taweret. So far, I have not found any information regarding the depiction of Taweret’s breasts in art. Since Taweret also is linked to fertility, are the breasts a connection to that? I haven’t read anything that specifically makes this connection, but perhaps that just can be assumed? Or perhaps the breasts were depicted to emphasize that this was a female goddess? What do people think?

From what I can tell, it seems like most depictions of Taweret are small figurines or amulets. I kind of doubt that there were any monumental statues created of this goddess (like the one shown in LOST). However, if you know of any monumental Taweret statues, let me know. I’d be interested to see them and find out why they were created on a monumental scale.

1 This statuette is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. You can read more information about it here.

2 Eugen Strouhal, Evžen Strouhal, and Werner Forman, Life of the Ancient Egyptians (Vigo, Spain: Editorial Galaxia, 1992), 16-17. Since I have some friends who are fascinated by childbirth (cough, Pamy, cough), here is the link to these pages in a Google Book preview, in case you want to read more.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.