Olympia (1863) by Edouard Manet
Meaning and Interpretation of Painting

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By Edouard Manet.
Regarded as one of the
greatest modern paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Olympia (1863)


Analysis of Olympia by Edouard Manet
Explanation of Other French Paintings


Name: Olympia (1863)
Artist: Edouard Manet (1832-83)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Genre painting
Movement: Realist painting
Location: Musee d'Orsay

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by Realist artists
like Manet, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


Edouard Manet has long been seen as a pioneer of modern art and a major contributor to the modernizing of French painting during the period 1863-83. His avant-garde art was a source of inspiration for Impressionist painters who in turn influenced his own brushwork and colour palette. However, he avoided showing at any of the Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris, and remained a conservative at heart, preferring to make his radical impact within the arts establishment and to seek recognition within the context of the French Academy and its official Salon. He was a strong admirer of Venetian painting, particularly the work of Giorgione and Titian, as well as artists from the school of Spanish painting, notably Velazquez and Goya. Prior to his association with Impressionism, Manet adopted a realist style which he used in his first two masterpieces - Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863). In 1863, the Salon jury rejected Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe along with another 2800 submissions, causing such an uproar that Emperor Napoleon III organized a new exhibition - called the Salon des Refuses (Exhibition of Rejected Art) - to allow the public to judge them for themselves. For more historical background, see: Realism to Impressionism (c.1830-1900).

Analysis of Olympia by Edouard Manet

Manet's painting shows a nude woman ("Olympia") confidently reclining on a bed, wearing nothing but a black ribbon around her neck, a gold bracelet on her wrist, Louis XV slippers on her feet and a silk flower in her hair - all symbols of wealth and sensuality. At the foot of the bed is a black cat, while a negro servant is shown bringing her a bouquet of flowers. Olympia was modelled on Victorine Meurent, one of Manet's favourite models, who also appears as the nude woman in Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, while the negress was modelled on a girl called Laure. But the most arresting feature of the painting - the thing that defines it as a revolutionary work of art - is the wholly modern context. Because Olympia is no classical goddess or mythological nymph from the pages of Ovid - Olympia is a 19th century Parisian prostitute. Even more shocking is the expression on her face. She looks at the viewer with a direct, almost confrontational gaze, as if placing the viewer in the role of her client. True, female nudes have been created by artists for centuries: Greek sculpture consisted of hardly anything else, and the Italian Renaissance regarded the human body as the ultimate subject. But nudity was only acceptable provided that the context was sufficiently high-minded. And a courtesan lying naked on a bed had the cold and prosaic reality of a truly low-minded subject.



The work was submitted to the 1865 Salon and amazingly, despite its shocking content, was accepted for inclusion in the show. Perhaps the Academy jury feared another Salon des Refuses if it was rejected. At any rate, the painting was put on public display and, predictably, caused an uproar, being quickly dubbed "Venus with a Cat", "Odalisque with a yellow stomach", "Female Gorilla" and worse. The disconcerted judges had the picture 'sky-ed' (placed on the uppermost line of paintings), so that it could not be seen very easily.

Interestingly, Manet kept this canvas till his death, and considered it his masterpiece. In 1889, some six years after his death, it was offered to the French Nation by public subscription organised through the initiative of Claude Monet, price 19,415 francs. It became part of the Luxembourg collection in 1890, before being transferred in 1907 to the Louvre, where it was hung opposite La Grande Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D.Ingres, in the Salle des Etats. It is now on display at the Musee d'Orsay.

For other figure paintings by Manet, see: Portrait of Emile Zola (1868); The Balcony (1868) and Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872).


It is well known that Manet based the composition on Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538), itself based on Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (1510). It is almost all there: the general position of the young woman, the pillow propping her up, the drapery that creeps under her right hand, her left hand covering and at the same time flagging the pudenda. But, if both nudes look at the viewer, then they do so in utterly different ways. Titian's goddess is seductive and beckons one into the picture's world. In contrast, Manet's Olympia, whose head is raised in an attitude of challenge that verges on provocation, fends one off. Manet has also replaced the dog (symbol of fidelity) with a cat (symbol of promiscuity), while the two maids in the background are reduced to just one, who is black, and infinitely more present and conspicuous in her gaudy get-up, weighed down by a bouquet that competes for attention with Olympia's naked display. Manet is saying that the flowers and the cat are as interesting as the nude. As for the trenchant vertical that in the Titian version bisects the backdrop to the picture and forms a line that falls plumb on the sitter's sex, Manet has shifted it enough to the right in Olympia to ensure a disconnection

In effect, by refusing to idealize her, indeed, by making her as undesirable as possible - the harsh lighting and off-white skin further diminishes her desirability - Manet is deliberately undermining the tradition of academic art and its old-fashioned principles, which he believed had no part in a progressive arts regime, in a modern France.

NOTE: In 1800, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya painted a very similar nude entitled Maja Desnuda (Naked Maja), for the Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Godoy. Given his interest in the Spanish School, it is almost certain that Manet borrowed from this work.

Explanation of Other French Paintings

A Burial at Ornans (1850) by Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Artist's Studio (1855) by Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Road-Menders, Rue de Berne (1878) by Edouard Manet.
Private Collection.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-2) by Edouard Manet.
Courtauld Gallery, London.

The Ballet Class (1871-4) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.


• For the meaning of other Realist or Impressionist paintings, see: Homepage.

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