Manet’s Olympia: Nude vs. Naked – Obtainable vs. Unobtainable

The following is a short essay for my Art and Sexuality class, it is a casual work and as such it lacks references.

Olympia – Édouard Manet, 1863

Manet’s Olympia: Nude vs. Naked – Obtainable vs. Unobtainable

She has been described as “terrifying”, “frightening”, and “shocking”. Yet she looks like the girl next door. This is Manet’s Olympia, and she is naked… or, possibly nude.

Nude, naked… naked, nude… while art historians may argue over this distinction, in common parlance they are synonyms. Semantics aside, the fact remains, there is something important here– something that made contemporary viewers rather uncomfortable. Through choices in presentation and subject, Manet created a nude that was, perhaps, somewhat revolutionary. She is believably sexually attainable in a non-procreative context—and therefore, shockingly naked (nude).

Manet modeled Olympia (1863) on the Venus of Urbino by Titian in 1538.

Venus of Urbino – Titian, 1538

Venus is one of the primary Roman goddesses. According to the myth, she was one of the mothers of the Roman people, lover to a mortal named Anchises. In the myth Venus seduces Anchises, and then appears nine months later with his child, Aeneas.

The Venus of Urbino is itself modeled on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus from 1510. In comparison to that work, contemporary viewers also considered Titian’s Venus erotic and provocative.

Sleeping Venus – Giorgione, c. 1510

The Olympia depicts a sexually attainable subject by virtue of its presentation. To dissect some differences between the presentations in Titian’s Venus and Manet’s Olympia:

Venus is emphatically a goddess and depicted as goddess-like, and therefore unobtainable. This is highlighted by her flowing hair and impossibly elegant, elongated pose. The colors and style of the painting seem to imply that we are viewing a scene in heaven or another world.

Olympia, on the other hand, is clearly human. She appears in a not quite comfortable looking position, and with her hair neatly and modestly styled. The colors and style of painting are even more realistic than in the Venus, so that the viewer assumes that this is a representation of a scene from the real world.

Also of note in terms of presentation, Venus appears by herself, with others only in the background, implying superiority and a separation from ordinary humans, the viewer included. Olympia appears with a slave at hand, a very low-status individual who she must, as a human living a normal existence, interact with. This gives her attainability.

The Olympia depicts a sexually attainable subject in its choice of model. To dissect some of the differences in the two models:

Venus is plump and exhibits physical qualities characteristic of fertility, especially her wide hips and slightly plump belly. She is definitely of child-bearing age, and definitely built for bearing and raising children. She is a mother-icon and therefore demanding of respect. She is, in fact, a mother of the Roman people, and therefore of all Western people. Beyond this, in her myth, she seduces a mortal man for a session of love-making (actually it was two weeks of love-making), and then appears nine months later with his child. She represents sexuality for procreation, sexuality with consequences, the only kind of sexuality considered acceptable by the moral authorities of the time. The message is clear: sex with me will be pleasurable, but it will result in a child and therefore requires a commitment and a relationship of respect.

Olympia, on the other hand, appears boy-like and small. She is thinner than Venus, and appears to be younger. She does not look like she is physically capable of carrying a child to term. She is therefore, while a woman, not a mother figure. She, while suitable for sex, is ill suited for procreation. Beyond this, contemporary viewers, guided by details of the painting (including the orchid in her hair, her pearl earrings and bracelet), would have understood that this subject, while maintaining plausible deniability, is likely intended to be a prostitute. This makes her the ultimate in attainability and unaccountability. While non-procreative sex was certainly being had by lots of people of the time, it was frowned upon by religious authorities who had an even larger impact than they do today. Like a cigarette advertisement, Olympia reminds the viewer that the option for non-procreative sex is out there, however hard you try to put the possibility out of mind.

One last detail is the bow around Olympia’s neck. This ultimately emphasizes her role as a sexual object. While some would argue that she is a symbol of female strength and in charge of her own sexuality, it is important to remember the dichotomy of dominance and submission. Olympia is in charge of her own sexuality but uses that control to make herself available for non-procreative sex, ultimately harming the collective bargaining power of the female race as a whole.

A self-respecting woman of the time would have no choice but to view the Olympia as a threat to her way of life. In the 1850s women had very little power, and one way they exerted what little control they could was by controlling the supply of sex, by making it available only with the precondition that it would lead to procreation, and therefore a respectable life as a mother and the support of a husband and community. While the Venus encourages the fetishism of motherhood and procreation, Olympia commodifies sex, presents the option that sex might be had at far less of a cost than a lifetime of commitment.

In the Venus, the mother figure is revered, a goddess at the center of the world. But look, Manet has replaced her! She has been replaced by a whore, as if the sexual needs of man have been outsourced to the lowest bidder. This is the threatening message of Manet, that perhaps a whore is equally, if not more so desirable to the true primal mind of a man than a wife or mother figure.

Is she naked? Is she nude? She is sexually obtainable, more so than Titian’s Venus, which in turn is more so obtainable than the Venus in Giorgione’s version. She represents the availability of non-procreative sex and reminds men that no matter the laws and morals of society, this has always been and will always remain an option. She has only the same naughty bits showing as the wife and mother figure Venus, but for all these reasons, contemporary women would surely have liked for her to cover up.

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