Manet’s ‘Olympia’ Comes to America for the Very First Time

The painting scandalized 19th-century viewers and heralded the dawn of modern art

Olympia by Manet
Édouard Manet's Olympia will soon make its United States debut in a new exhibition. Musée d’Orsay

When Édouard Manet’s Olympia debuted in 1865, viewers at the Paris Salon were aghast. “Spectators were sobbing, shouting, getting into scuffles; the Salon had to hire armed guards,” writes the New York Times’ Jason Farago. “The picture was so stark that visitors kept trying to puncture the canvas with their umbrellas.”

Today, the painting is celebrated for heralding the dawn of modern art. Despite its international renown, Olympia has spent the vast majority of its 160-year existence in just one city: Paris, where it resides in the collections of the Musée d’Orsay.

Now, for the very first time, Olympia has arrived in the United States, where it will appear in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The show, “Manet/Degas,” first ran at the Musée d’Orsay earlier this year; it explores the complicated friendship between the two French painters, who met in the early 1860s.

When Olympia scandalized at the annual Salon—the art world’s most prestigious exhibition at the time—it stood apart from the other featured works, which were mostly attempts to imitate the styles of Renaissance painters like Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli and Titian. Manet made no such attempts, choosing instead to subvert the rules that the 19th-century establishment held dear.

While Olympia is based on Titian’s 1538 painting Venus of Urbino, which depicts a nude woman reclining on a bed, it’s no imitation. Venus is filled with symbols of marriage and fidelity and is often considered an idealization of female beauty. In the 19th century, nudes presented in this fashion weren’t controversial.

Manet’s work similarly depicts a nude woman reclining on a bed—but this figure is modern, her eyes fixed firmly on the viewer. Critics often interpret her as a sex worker rather than an idealized classical beauty. “Worse still, her direct gaze placed the spectator in the role of the prostitute’s client,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica. “Manet did nothing to counter this interpretation.”

Critics eventually came to admire the work’s casual bluntness, and today, Olympia is considered a decisive turning point in art history. It is, as the Washington Post’s Sebastian Smee puts it, “the Mona Lisa of modern art.”

Some Manet fans go even further. “I am a Manet freak,” writes the Times’ Farago. “To me, he is more than just the greatest painter of the 19th century; he’s the supreme model of how an artist can meet the times head-on, and rewrite the rules of culture as the world outside jerks forward. Which is why Olympia coming to New York should be an event on the order of Michelangelo’s Pietà traveling to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, or Lionel Messi being transferred to Miami.”

Today, Olympia’s nudity no longer scandalizes. Contemporary scholars and critics are more interested in the other woman present in the work: Laure, the Black model posing as the servant who stands behind Olympia, carrying a bouquet of flowers.

Manet featured Laure in two other works. (She was the sole subject of one of them.) For many years, scholars largely ignored her in their analyses of Olympia. More recent research, however, has shed new light on Laure and other Black models in art history.

Several years ago, for instance, an exhibition on that very topic premiered at New York’s Wallach Art Gallery. While Olympia didn’t travel to New York at that time, it was a key part of the show. As curator Denise Murrell told the Times’ Hilarie M. Sheets in 2018, Manet didn’t paint Laure “in the gorgeously rendered exotic attire of the harem servant”—a style other Salon artists relied on in their depictions of Black women.

She added, “Would Manet really give all this pictorial space to someone he didn’t want us to pay attention to?”

Manet/Degas” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from September 24, 2023 to January 7, 2024.

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