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The Rhetorics of the Nude:
Positioning Manet’s Olympia in 19th century European Art

Rahul Majumder

A painting that compelled a generation of art historians and critics to rethink the predominant discourses of the ‘Nudes’ in Western art, especially in contemporary French painting in the nineteenth century; a painting that created great stir and uproar at the salon in Paris, attracted so much negative and as well as the destructive attention that the Salon authority had to reposition it to a more or less invisible position from its counterparts. Today this painting is venerated by mass as one of the earliest of its genre to incorporate the aspects of the male gaze and its immediate transaction. Eduard Manet’s ‘Olympia’, a masterpiece now, had a history of overwhelmingly adverse response.

But what are the reasons that caused such negative impact? The bourgeois, the general Salon attendees, had been trained to look at nudes, and it has its own genre from the classical times of Greek antiquity. Various gods-goddesses and demigods from the mythological origins are usually represented in this genre. Then, what went wrong for ‘Olympia’?

To comprehend the outlooks of the attendees of the Salon in Paris in 1865, it is essential to understand the socio-political and cultural scenario of that time. Napoleon III established the second empire in 1852 following the revolution of 1848 and was motivated to make his mark in the era of industrial progression, new inventions, and overseas expansion. The contemporary audience was accustomed to seeing nudes, and in fact, it was already established as a popular genre of painting by then; each year, a number of nude paintings were selected to be exhibited at the Salon. In the year 1865 itself, along with Olympia, many more[1] academic studies of Nudes were on full display. But there’s a catch. Each of these paintings was typically idealized and set in some Arcadian realm. The attendees were fully aware that the characters in those images were not real, unlike Olympia; hence, the ‘uncouth’, ‘corpse-like’ image of prostitute-like expressions accompanied Manet’s painting.

It was the time when a resurgence of radical movements like socialism, communism, and feminism happened, but the new bourgeoisie was sexually repressed, which resulted in the eruption of professions like prostitution into all levels of social structure. This echoed in the words of Parent-Duchatelet[2]: “We will have arrived at the limit of perfection... if we arrange it so that men...can distinguish those (prostitutes) from honest women; but that those women, and especially their daughters, cannot make this distinction...” The upsurge of prostitution concerned the bourgeoisie that the society was being destabilized from within. However, prostitution gave women a kind of power- the ultimate transaction of selling their bodies for money placed them in all quarters of society. Interestingly, the name ‘Olympia’[3] was quite common in this profession; further juxtaposing Manet’s Olympia from a ‘mythology-wrapped nude’ to a real character of flesh and blood. That was indeed too much for the public to fathom!

As a popular genre of paintings, ‘nudes’ were predominant in Paris’s Salons. However, it was the subject matter that constructed the viewer’s notion of the image, as Nudes were merely the form of a painting, not the content. From Titian and Giorgione to Giacometti to Bougeroue and Cabanel, everyone painted female nudes, but every one of them incorporated the aspect of mythical fantasy. Traditional representations of the nudes put a woman on display for the pleasure of a spectator, presumed to be male, and the male viewer also understands the fact that the image is not from the real world, thus never invading his private space- creates no objection.

As John Berger has observed, "almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal- either literally or metaphorically- because the sexual protagonist is the spectator, owner looking at it."[4] This reading can be observed in the works of the above-mentioned artists who had painted various versions of nude figures of Venus. Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility, was always a favourite among the artists to portray the ideal beauty of humanistic values of classical antiquity.

It is often discussed how Manet was profoundly influenced by Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538). Genre-wise, they may have similarities, but they are remarkably contrasting in terms of incorporation of the subject matter. As a matter of fact, in both paintings, the figure had been modelled after a prostitute. Titian’s nude was wrapped in the mythical veil of the ideal beauty of Venus, whereas Manet’s Olympia shocked the viewers with its uncanny realist depiction.

At the time of the debut of Venus of Urbino in 1583, Titian was an established Italian artist, so the controversy was minimal. He had based his painting on another Venus figure, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510). Giorgione’s painting depicts a nude female sleeping in the hilly mountainous countryside, and the influence of this painting on Titian is quite evident. The elongated stretched torso and the overtly sensuous pose, where the background doesn’t correspond to the figure in any context, merely acted as a backdrop. Titian took this imagery, modified the gesture of the right arm and transplanted the female figure inside a bedroom.

Titan’s Venus, however, is not sleeping. She is in a posture of casual relaxation and gazes indirectly at the viewers in quiet coyness. However, this typical look on her face can almost be read as a welcoming gesture. She’s pretty much aware of the fact that she is being looked at and also seeking more attention from the male viewers. This “ethereal character of Venus gazing out so dreamily”[5] drew viewers back to “medieval romance” and fantasy. From a perspective of formal analysis, the painting is composed of subtle brush strokes, done in minute detailing. Her skin's warm, glowing tone invites, while her adverted gaze depicts a kind of curiosity. Although the painting is centred on the nude Venus, compositionally, it is divided in half by the background. A black and green backdrop frames Venus’s upper body, further accentuating her elongated torso; her legs are relatively short in proportion, and her feet are tiny in size. The background displays a separate room behind the couch, where Two servants bend over a chest[6], apparently searching for garments to clothe ‘Venus’.

Not so long before Olympia made an impact on salon-goers, in 1862, French academic painter Alexandre Cabanel painted ‘The Birth of Venus’ and received significant acclaim at the 1862 Paris Salon, which Napoleon III later purchased. The painting depicts a nude Venus reclining across the surface of ocean waves and surrounded by cupids, dancing in mid-air and hovering over the figure of Venus. Her eyes are half closed, and her body is stretched in a sensuous posture. The influence of fellow French artist Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the Rococo colour palette is strongly evident. Unlike Manet, Cabanel didn’t disturb the general mass’s viewing experience of nudes by critiquing their gaze.

Another academic portrayal of Venus is The Birth of Venus (1879) by 19th-century academic painter William- Adolphe Bouguereau. This iconic painting received great praise. Unlike the typical landscape format of his predecessors, Bouguereau painted his Venus in a standing posture in a vertical framework, and the loose influence of Botticelli’s Venus can be seen. Here, Venus stands elegantly in a ‘S’ curve contrapposto, emphasizing the feminine curvatures of her body on a scallop shell pulled by a dolphin. Fifteen putti, including Cupid and Psyche, and several nymphs and centaurs have gathered to witness her arrival. Most figures are gazing at her, and two centaurs are blowing into conch and Triton shells. Venus’s facial expression is calm, comfortable with her nudity She raises her arms, arranging her thigh-length, red hair, further accentuating her feminine sensuousness.


The word ‘scandal’ is traced back to the Greek word Skandalon, which means "trap, snare, and stumbling block." (source) The viewers of Olympia at the 1865 salon reacted as if this scandalous image trapped them. The bourgeois public took much offence at this apparent confrontation of morality, so the painting had to be rehung high on the Salon wall. But what exactly were the pictorial elements that caused so much uproar? Unlike other paintings on Venus discussed above, Olympia was not adverting her eyes from the viewers. Her gaze was direct and challenging, captivating the viewers; her posture was rigid and upright. Another interesting factor which is less talked about is the particular stance of her left hand, firmly covering her genitals. This particular hand gesture has a name: ‘Pudica pose’, which can be traced back to Greek antiquity, in the works of Praxiteles[7], the first sculptor to introduce this posture in the context of Venus portraiture. In this posture, an unclothed female (either standing or reclining) keeps one hand covering her private parts.

The resultant pose - which is not, incidentally, applicable to the male nude - is somewhat asymmetrical and often serves to draw one's eye to the very spot being concealed! The word pudica comes to us from the Latin pudendus, which can mean either external genitalia or shame or both simultaneously. If we look back to the images of Venus, we have seen earlier, in each case, the posture of the hand or, say, the pudica pose rather directs one’s gaze towards the genital that the hand is covering and also, the hand seems to be loosely placed, further conveying a sense of submission of the female figure to the male audience.

This differs in the case of Olympia. The left hand is firmly positioned on the lap. Interestingly, one might observe the use of less modelling throughout the figure but relatively much more modelling in the hands-further accentuating the fact that Olympia is very much aware that she’s being looked at and simultaneously challenging her onlookers! Manet further accompanied this rigidity of Olympia with quick, large brushstrokes. The strokes were visible on the painting itself, showing the directionality of the brush. Artists of the past were careful not to leave brushstrokes, as these were considered imperfections. In fact, Titian might have covered Venus of Urbino with as many as nine layers of paint to create her smooth, soft portrait. Interestingly, Olympia has repelled the viewers instead of drawing the audience in. Olympia lacked colour in many ways, as its primary tones were black and white. This deliberate contrast in the painting brings attention to the figure of Olympia while contrasting the black servant and the black cat in the background. The black servant attending to her was not in the foreground but merely situated behind Olympia, presenting her a bouquet of flowers. The audience was Olympia’s suitor, her customer, and these flowers were present and needed approval from the sender. 

In "The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers”, T.J Clark’s words add dimension to the study of Olympia,

“A a picture for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of somebody else's desire. Nothing I go on to say about Olympia is meant to suggest that Manet's painting escapes that wider determination, or even escaped it once upon a time, in the 1865 Salon. It was meant as a nude and finally taken as one….Olympia is depicted as nude and courtesan but also as naked and insoumise; the one identity is the form of the other, but the two are put together in such a way as to make each contingent and unfinished. The case is particularly clear when it comes to the picture's obvious main subject: Olympia's beauty, her sexual power, and how that relates to her body's being female.” 

In the exact text, Clack argues some of the allegations made by some viewers and critics; he further wrote,

“it was already in 1865-- that Olympia is not female at all, or only partly so. She is masculine or "masculinized"; she is "boyish," aggressive, or androgynous. None of these words strikes me as the right one, but they all indicate quite well why the viewer is uncertain. It is because he cannot easily make Olympia a Woman that he wants to make her a man; she has to be something less or more or otherwise aberrant. This seems to me wrongheaded: surely Olympia's sexual identity is not in doubt; it is how it belongs to her that is the problem.” 

The sexual identity of Olympia was not in inspection, but her strong ‘manly’ aggressive ‘gaze’ became the root of all problems. Clark further added, 

“They (the viewers) were offered an outward gaze: a pair of jet-black pupils, a slight asymmetry of the lids, a mouth with a curiously smudged and broken corner, features half adhering to the plain oval of the face. A look was thus constructed which seemed direct and reserved, in a way which was close to the classic face of the nude. It was close, but so is parody. This is not a look which is generalized or abstract or evidently ‘feminine.’ It appears to be blatant and particular, but it is also unreadable, perhaps deliberately so. It is candid but guarded, poised between address and resistance --so precisely, so deliberately, that it comes to be read as a production of the depicted person herself; there is an inevitable conflation of the qualities of precision and contrivance in the way the image is painted and those qualities as belonging to the fictive subject; it is her look, her action upon us, her composition of herself.” 

 In a letter to his friend Baudelaire, Manet mentioned,

“The insults rain down on me like hail...” Yet while many looked upon Olympia as a symbol of immorality or a slattern, others recognized her as a triumph. The writer Emile Zola called it Manet’s “masterpiece,” declaring, “It will endure as the characteristic expression of his talent, as the highest mark of his power ... When other artists correct nature by painting Venus they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?” 


Is she naked? Is she nude? She is sexually obtainable, yet Olympia repels her viewers with the sternness of her gaze. Maybe this refusal is reflected in her gaze, particularly female viewers today, identifying- Olympia's defiant look and gazing through the pictorial surface at the discomforted male spectator whose desire it muddles. To conclude, I want to lend Clark’s words, “Nakedness is a strong sign of class, a dangerous instance of it. And thus, the critics' reaction in 1865 became more comprehensible. They were perplexed by the fact that Olympia's class was nowhere but in her body: the cat, the Negress, the orchid, the bunch of flowers, the slippers, the pearl earrings, the choker, the screen; the shawl-they were all lures, they all meant nothing or nothing in particular. The naked body did without them in the end and did its own narrating”. The debate over this painting will never end. Scholars have discussed it again and again, but the aura that it created in the history of European art is unparalleled.



[1] Louis Lamothe’s L’Origine du dessin, Louis- Frederic Schutzenberger’s Europe enlevee par Jupiter,Firmin, Girard’s Le Sommeil de Venus, Felix-Henri Giacometti’s L’Enlevement d’Amymone and Joseph-Victor Ranvier’s L’Enfance de Bacchus were exhibited alongside Olympia.

[2] Public servant Parent-Duchételet described the mid-19th century Parisian lifestyle in De La Prostitutions de la Ville de Paris. The Quarterly Review LXX(London), 1842, mockingly described him as the Newton of harlotry for his way of writing in details about the prostitution in Paris.

[3]A list of pseudonyms compiled by Parent-Duchételet in 1836 shows that the French form of Olympia, ‘Olympe’ was more common than the classical Olympia. Olympe was a courtesan in Alexandre Dumas’s popular play La Dame aux camellias. It was also the name of a famous Renaissance courtesan, Donna Olimpia Maldachini.

[4] Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd, PP 56.

[5] Barolsky, Paul. 1978. Infinite Jest Wit and Humour in Italian Renaissance Art. Colombia & London: University of Missouri Press

[6] Renaissance households stored clothing in carved wooden chests called cassoni.

[7] Usage of the Pudica pose can be seen in the Roman marble copy of Greek statue Aphrodite of Cnidus (c. 350 BC), originally sculpted by Praxiteles. Now housed in the Vatican Museum. 




Andrew Graham Dixon. (2008). Art: The Definative Visual Guide. London: Dorling Kindersley.

farthing, S. (2010). Art: The Whole Story. London : Thames And Hudson.

Fred S. Kleiner. (2010). Art Through The Ages. Boston: Wadsworth.

John Berger. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

John Russel. (1974). The Meanings of Modern Art. London: Thames and Hudson.

Mohan, A. (2007). Eroticism and Art. NewYork: Oxford University Press.

T. J. Clark. (1999). Olympia's Choice. In T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (pp. 79-146). New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

T.A. Gronberg. (1990). Manet: A Retrospective . NewYork: Park Lane.

Theodore Reff. (1976). Manet: Olympia. London: Penguin Books Ltd.


Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130 x 190 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)


Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538, oil on canvas, 119.20 x 165.50 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)


Giorgione, Sleeping Venus. 1510, Oil on canvas, 108 x 175 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden


The Birth of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, 1875


Birth Of Venus, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1879

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