The Painting that Deconstructed the Traditional Nude

The risks of Édouard Manet’s Olympia

Christopher P Jones
8 min readOct 31, 2023

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Olympia (1863) by Édouard Manet. Oil on canvas. 130.5 × 190 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Some works of art demand our attention because they overturn centuries of tradition. Édouard Manet’s Olympia is one such painting.

When the image was first shown in the Paris Salon in 1865, it caused a storm among the critics and viewers alike. Gallery visitors are said to have attacked it with umbrellas, shouting and breaking into fracas.

But why exactly?

What was it about Olympia that shattered expectations of the nude in art, and also led to it becoming thought of as one of the most important artworks ever made?

A Modern Venus

Left: Olympia (1863) by Édouard Manet. Oil on canvas. 130.5 × 190 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons. Right: Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titian. Oil on canvas. 119.2 × 165.5 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Public domain. Image source Wikimedia Commons

To explore the finer meaning of Manet’s Olympia — and why it reveals the difference between nude and naked in art — it’s helpful to look at its forebearer, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538).

Made over 300 years before, Titian’s earlier version shows a young woman reclining on a bed in a Renaissance palace. She accords with the tradition of the yielding, malleable nude, so rendered as to place “the spectator in a position of imaginary knowledge” — as the art historian TJ Clark notes.

As the 19th-century French historian Hippolyte Taine put it, Titian’s Venus of Urbino represented “the mistress of a patrician, reclining on a bed, adorned and waiting…”

Most crucially, Venus “is une courtisane, but she is a lady”.

Manet, who painted his modern version in 1863, is known to have seen this work and painted an oil copy as a student in Florence a decade earlier. By the time that he copied it, Titian’s original had become a venerated yet clichéd representation of the ideal nude.

Crucial Differences

The similarities of Manet’s updated version are clear, yet it’s interesting to note the differences.

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