This is a blog set in 1865 during the great Paris Salon where Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia was causing an uproar.

Manet, Olympia. 1863.

The Public Reaction

The violent and intense reaction by the Parisian critics and public was overwhelming – the reaction so great that the cornucopia of criticisms and insults rained upon her.  This blog documents those intense reactions from a point of view of examining and viewing social history within the simple construct of a piece of art.

This reaction meant something.  The reaction also appears as an intense over-reaction.  Surely there were a multiplicity of nudes and some quite more provocative than Olympia.

So, what did Olympia trigger?

Those intended answers can be found within modern day critics of Olympia who have a multitude of answers (from the first demonstrations of feminism, a critique of the hidden vices of Paris society, a Parisian discourse of the evolution of courtesan to prostitute, a reflection of something deep in the psyche, to the parody of the male Parisian viewer himself).

Olympia's Gaze

Often, a viewer’s frame of reference, his preconceived notions control his response to a new visual experience. Strangely, Bouguereau’s fleshy, rotund nymphs, fleeing half-heartedly from satyrs, exotic odalisques in harems, comfortably ensconced in mythology or far-distant places, raised no questions of morality, offered no threat to the existing social hierarchy. But a family man, whether accompanied by his wife, his children, or his mistress, was inevitably embarrassed by Olympia’s bold acceptance of her own nudity, by the challenge of her impertinent little face.

It is the Gaze of the Portrait Nude that has changed.  Olympia looks directly at the viewer.

Rather than enjoying the pleasantly double-edged sensation of viewing desirable nude females, in the safe confines of the Salon, it was as though alone in a room he was confronted by this “shameless provocative hussy” stating –

“I am I. What are you?”

However, this blog’s intent is to provide the visitor with the experience of the day and place Olympia within the context of its time.  Surely, the Parisian critics and viewers of 1865 would have loved the medium of blogging – and surely their blogs would have been red-hot!  This blog is thus presented as one set in Paris 1865.

Lastly, the question too is this:

How did Olympia then go from most vile of women to her place as masterpiece in the Louvre only 43 years later in 1908?

Victorine Meurent

Victorine Meurent

The model was Victorine Meurent, also model for the nude in Dejeuner sur Pherbe which had caused great scandal in the Salon des Refuses that same year. Between 1862, when she first posed for Manet, and 1875, he painted her at least nine times. She is the heavily clothed Street Singer in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At the Metropolitan Museum in New York she is the rather chubby Mile. Victorine in the costume of an Espada as well as the slender, feminine Woman with a Parrot. As a young matron with a child beside her, a sleeping puppy in her lap, she may be seen in The Railroad at the National Gallery in Washington.  In New England at the Hill-Stead Museum, dressed all in white, playing a guitar, she is purity itself.

Olympia: The Parisian Salon Scandal of 1865

But to the public that thronged to the salon of 1865 where the Olympia was first shown, she embodied sin, both moral and artistic. Inspite of her name which implied legitimate descent from the mountain of the gods she seemed to most spectators not a comfortably acceptable nude but a naked, provocative tart. “Anything awful makes me laugh,” one female spectator said. The usually complacent Parisian family horrified or awestruck before the Olympia laughed.

Riotous Reaction

Their laughter was raucous, hysterical, contagious. It threatened violence.

To prevent the rape of “P auguste feune fille en qui la flamme veille” as she was described in the poem attached to the frame of the painting, the authorities were forced to re-hang it high enough to be more or less invisible.

Manet, Jesus insulte par les soldats, 1865.

It probably did not help matters that Olympia was originally hung directly under Manet’s other contribution to the Salon – Jesus insulted by the Soldiers – and as well did Olympia took on her own insults.

Olympia’s Competitors

From rare photographs have been discovered the competitors to Olympia at the 1865 Paris Salon.

Paris Salon Paintings, 1865.

Paris Salon Paintings, 1865.

It is also important to note how different Olympia looked compared to these classic paintings.  This includes at the time the gem of the exhibition – the nude by Felix Henri Giacomotti – which now by modern times has been driven into obscurity where as Olympia has been set upon the diadem of masterpieces…

Now a Masterpiece…

Olympia at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris (by Steve Greaves)

To the modern mind and eye the violence of the public and critical reaction to this masterpiece is astonishing. The average museum visitor today automatically places the Olympia in the category of great paintings of nudes – Ingres’s Odalisques, Giorgione’s Dresden Venus, Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, and Titian’s Venus of Urbino…

An Homage to Titian’s Venus of Urbino

Titian, Venus of Urbino. 1538.

Indeed the Olympia was Manet’s bow to the Titian work which he had copied in Florence as a young man. The contemporary critics, however, were as blind to the likeness of the two compositions as their colleagues had been to the qualities of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque in the Salon a half century earlier.


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