Olympia by Edouard Manet

Though painted in 1863 Manet did not exhibit this work until 1865, when it was accepted for the Salon: he probably wanted to allow the storm caused by Le Dejeuner sur VHerbe to subside. The reaction to this work was, however, even more violent: as before the subject-matter was seen as vulgar and immoral, an insult to good taste. The nude was once again modeled on Victorine Meurent, but in contrast to those by contemporary Salon painters or Old Masters, Manet made no attempt to idealize her or to present her as, say, a figure of Venus . Instead he depicted her as he saw her, while casting her in the role of prostitute, shown receiving flowers from one of her clients, while awaiting the next. Her insistent and direct gaze implies that the viewer is a prospective visitor, though her expression is not one of invitation, rather of a cool indifference born of familiarity with her work. The few items she wears bracelet, neck ribbon and a single shoe - serve to emphasize her nudity, while the presence of the black maidservant adds a note of exoticism that contemporaries would have associated with the harem scenes so beloved of Salon painters. At the foot of the bed, its yellow eyes staring outwards, is a black cat, whose significance is ambiguous: it probably symbolizes erotic pleasure as well as connoting evil and witchcraft. At the same Salon Manet also showed Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, and this pairing of religious and aggressively secular subjects rendered Olympia even more inflammatory.

The pose of the nude is very similar to that of Titian's Venus ofUrbino in the Uffizi (in which there is a sleeping dog at the feet of Venus). However, the provocative directness of the painting is closer to Goya's NakedMaja. Numerous other sources have been cited, including contemporary Salon paintings of odalisques or even pornographic photographs of the era. Manet is supposed to have taken the title from a mediocre poem written by Astruc in 1864, which may have had a subversive appeal because of its mythological resonance. He quoted the first five lines of it on the exhibition label, further clarifying the meaning of the work. While much of the criticism focused on the subject, there were also attacks on its execution: on the use of a harsh outline for the figure and on the 'ugly' color scheme, particularly in the flesh tones. Furthermore, Manet seemed to make no distinction between the various elements: the face was treated no differently from the flowers or fabrics. Since its execution, perhaps even more so than Le Dejeuner sur I'Herbe, this work has come to occupy a unique place in modern art and has frequently been both reworked and satirized.