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.

  • heidenkind says:

    It's funny that you mentioned the flower and bracelet, because I had completely forgotten about that part of the article. But I definitely agree with you that that's the weakest part of her argument. Now, if Bellanger's nickname was The Hissing Black Cat, that would be more convincing. 😀

    I still really love that article because you think you know a painting, and then someone writes something like that and you look at it in a completely different way. And that's what I love about art history. 🙂

  • E says:

    I think the argument is weak. Really, the only part I thought could be a good point for proving it true, was that Manet was so upset. I don't know … I guess, the article COULD be right, but I sort of doubt it. (Coming from my unintelligent point of view …)

  • M says:

    Ha – I love the Hissing Black Cat idea, heidenkind. That cracked me up! 🙂

    I love this article for the same reasons – it makes me look at a familiar painting in a completely different way. That's one of the reasons why I love art history too – and finding/writing about these types of articles is one of the reasons why I like to blog.

    A few months ago I read another article which caused me to reevaluate what I've learned about Goya's portrait of Charles IV and his family. (I posted my thoughts on the article here.) I have thought about this argument many times since writing about it, and I'm sure I will do the same for this Olympia article. It's fun to find these kind of arguments, and I like to post about them so that I can easily find the information for future reference. Sometimes I like to discuss conflicting/controversial arguments in my art history lectures, so that my students can understand that there is not one authoritative interpretation for all works of art.

    E, I agree with you: that the fact Manet was upset is a pretty good point for supporting the argument that this painting wasn't meant to be controversial. Even though I don't totally buy into everything in this article, I also think that Floyd makes a really good point that Olympia was originally intended to be in a more modest position (as indicated in the chalk study) – that seems (to me) like a surefire indication that Manet didn't intend for the prostitute to be so brazen and confrontational (at least it wasn't the intention at the inception of the painting).

  • Jon says:

    I've always assumed that Manet was motivated by a desire to be accepted by the Salon. I'm not sure her really thought of himself as a revolutionary out to shock. He did, however, find that his commitment to painting modern life (with all its flaws, contradictions and hypocrisies) brought him into conflict with the academic old guard. Ironically, Manet's appreciation of Old Master painting was considerably more profound than the historicists in the Salon who were painting tired pastiches of ancient history. Manet (like Goya before him who also attracted a fair amount of criticism) really got Titian, for example, and the Venus of Urbino is clearly the model for this composition. It doesn't surprise me that manet would have been upset by the hostility directed towards "Olympia" but that doesn't necessarily mean that the challenging stare theory flies out of the window. This is a modern woman, sexually alluring, knowing and in control of her seductive appeal. The viewer is clearly a lover, fully clothed and waiting to be paid for his gift of flowers. The cat knows what's going on, and this is a significant departure from the lapdog in Titian's painting (as is the black maid). Perhaps it was Manet's determination to paint a contemporary scene (rather than a silly, overblown history painting) that was the main cause of the controversy? The connection with the Emperor's mistress is interesting. Apparently, she was also the subject of some criticism, suspected of being the hidden power behind Napoleon III's rule. As with so many other late 19th century paintings in which women are depicted as active, intelligent participants in the vibrant life of the city, Manet is merely reflecting a new paradigm for gender relationships. After all, he knew, and was related to, talented women artists who made a significant contribution to the development of Impressionism. Manet's "Olympia" does not have to have been conceived as an affront to the Salon in order for it to contain a critique of male attitudes. Manet's commitment to representing modern life, whilst simultaneously honouring the art of the past, is the source of the work's power.

  • M says:

    Jon, thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you in regards to the male gaze and challenging stare theory – I think that argument can be supported by just looking at Olympia.

    I can see what you are saying about how Manet strove for acceptance in the Salon (especially since this painting does recall Titan's canonical painting Venus of Urbino). I think you are right – Manet's blatant depiction of modern life definitely was a reason (if not THE reason) for his painting to be rejected. I'm surprised, though, that Manet did not realize that this depiction of modern life was not favored by Salon goers (or maybe he did realize it, but thought he was "softening the blow" by alluding to a mythological/history painting).

    Really, I'm just surprised by Manet's surprise at the reaction to his work.

  • M says:

    P.S. I don't know if you'll see this Jon, but I wanted to let you know that I have had trouble commenting on your ArtHistories blog. I have tried to comment from different computers and using different browsers. The preview for commenting comes up, but the word verification section is always cut off. I wonder if I'm the only person who is having this difficulty.

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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.