by Alexandra Tuschka
The 19-year-old nude model Victorine Meurent lies on expansive blankets and looks the viewer directly and provocatively in the eyes. Manet had met the young girl only a year earlier - she was to become one of the painter's favorite models. She also sat model for numerous colleagues. Not much is known about the young woman. She also embarked on a career as a painter, learned to play the guitar, and later became addicted to alcohol. Later, she is even said to have begged for money as a street musician with a monkey. Here, however, Manet shows her in her prime.
Manet himself came from a wealthy family and was a man of the world - charming, cultured and talented. After "Breakfast in the Green" already caused a scandal, the Olympia with the frivolously perceived motif continues in this tradition. The motif also joins the tradition of the reclining Venus of a Titian or Goya and of course the main work of the sleeping Venus of Giogione. Nevertheless, here we do not see the goddess who always legitimized the pictorial motif, but a prostitute. The fictitious name "Olympia" has no iconographic tradition, but phonetically recalls the ancient legends of the gods.
She has already taken off one shoe, the other still hangs limply over her toes. Except for the bow, the bracelet and the orchid in her hair, the woman could not be more naked. An African servant comes into the picture from behind. She holds a magnificent bouquet of flowers, reminiscent of Manet's skill as a still life painter. Do the flowers come from an admirer? The girl ignores them. She turns her attention to us - her next customer?
Manet wanted to join the ranks of the old masters - but this reinterpretation of the old pictorial theme was misjudged. In 1871 Manet suffered a nervous breakdown - probably due to the constant rejections. During his lifetime, the painter did not sell the work; but even after his death, no one wanted to buy it at first. Sargent and Monet later managed to acquire the work for the Louvre through a public appeal for donations.
Édouard Manet - Olympia
Oil on canvas, 1863, 130 x 190 cm, Musée d'Orsay in Paris