T.J. Clark comments on the sexual ambiguity presented by Manet’s Olympia and the way it forced recognition of troubled and contradictory attitudes towards prostitution in the mid-nineteenth century:
“The critical reaction to Olympia was decidedly negative. Only four critics out of sixty were favorably disposed to the picture…”
“The picture turns, inevitably, on the signs of sexual identity. I want to argue that, for the critics of 1865, sexual identity was precisely what Olympia did not possess. She failed to occupy a place in the discourse on Woman, and specifically she was neither a nude, nor a prostitute: by that I mean she was not a modification of the nude in ways which made it clear that what was being shown was sexuality on the point of escaping from the constraints of decorum – sexuality proffered and scandalous. There is no scandal in Olympia, in spite of the critics’ effort to construct one. It was the odd coexistence of decorum and disgrace – the way in which neither set of qualities established its dominance over the other – which was the difficulty of the picture in 1865.”
“Let me make what I am saying perfectly clear. Olympia refuses to signify – to be read according to the established codings for the nude, and signify – to be read according to the established codings for the nude, and take her place in the Imaginary. But if the picture were to do anything more than that, it (she) would have to be given, much more clearly, a place in another classed code – a place in the code of classes. She would have to be given a place in the world which manufactures the Imaginary, and reproduces the relations of dominator/dominated, fantasizer/fantasized.
The picture would have to construct itself a position…within the actual conflict of images and ideologies surrounding the practice of prostitution in 1865. What that conflict consisted in was indicated, darkly, by the critics’ own fumbling for words that year – the shift between petite faubourienne and courtisane. In other words, between the prostitute as proletarian, recognized as such and recognizing herself as such, and the other, ‘normal’ Second Empire situation: the endless exchange of social and sexual meanings, in which the prostitute is alternately – fantastically – recognized as proletarian, as absolutely abject, shameless, seller of her own flesh, and then, in a flash, misrecognized as dominator, as femme fatale, as imaginary ruler.”
T.J. Clark, “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865,” Screen, v. 21, n. 1 (Spring 1980): 18-41, reprinted in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts (London: Phaidon, 1992) 105, 113-14 & 118-19.
Griselda Pollock comments on an overlooked aspect of Manet’s Olympia:
“Without wanting to displace existing arguments about how this painting might be read in relation to the conventions it disrupted in order to articulate a form for aspects of modern sexuality, I suggest that one important axis has been neglected. That axis is established by the figure of ‘the other woman’, the woman for whom ‘Laure’ [the dark-skinned woman] modelled as a crucial element in the painting’s renegotiation of its own context of production. Ignoring the painting’s relation to Orientalism means ignoring the modernity of this representation of a black woman as a working-class woman in the metropolis, a black Parisienne, a black faubourienne. It produces an implicit and uncritical prostitutionalization of Laure by the conflation of servitude and its sexualized setting. It means maintaining the artificial divide between the works canonically celebrated as the founding texts of modernism, i.e. paintings by ‘Manet and his followers’, and those dismissed by that canon as Salonnier academic realism in the service of corrupt colonial fantasy, i.e. works by Gérôme and others who fashioned the Orientalist theme in the Salons of the Second Empire and Third Republic. By acknowledging the reference in this painting to Orientalist texts, another dimension of its strategic difference, differencing its current canons – whether you call that move modernism or not – can be discerned. But the main point is that it gives us a way to locate this figure modelled by Laure within metropolitan modernity and not as either blank darkness (Zola) or exotic attribute of venal sexuality (Gilman, Clark, Reff*), which is where she stands in typical art histories.”
*Sander Gilman, T.J. Clark, Theodore Reff
Griselda Pollock, “A Tale of Three Women: Seeing in the Dark, Seeing Double, at least, with Manet,” Differencing the Canon. Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 285.
Left-wing critic Jean Ravenel expressed one of the few positive responses to Olympia when he saw it at the Salon of 1865:
“Monsieur Manet – Olympia – The scapegoat of the Salon, the victim of Parisian lynch law. Each passer-by takes a stone and throws it in her face. Olympia is a very crazy bit of Spanish madness, which is a thousand times better than the platitude and inertia of so many canvases on show in the Exhibition.
Armed insurrection in the camp of the bourgeois: it is a glass of iced water which each visitor gets full in the face when he sees the BEAUTIFUL courtesan in full bloom.
Painting in the school of Baudelaire, freely executed by a pupil of Goya; the vicious strangeness of the little faubourienne, a woman of the night from Paul Niquet’s* from the mysteries of Paris and the nightmares of Edgar Poe. Her look has the sourness of someone prematurely aged, her face the disturbing perfume of a flower of evil; the body fatigued, corrupted [corrumpu also carries the meaning ‘tainted’, ‘putrid’] but painted under a single transparent light, with the shadows light and fine, the bed insufficient in execution, but with real harmony to them, the shoulder and arm solidly established in a clean and pure light. – The cat arching its back makes the visitor laugh and relax, it is what saves M. Manet from a popular execution.”
*Paul Niquet ran a bar at 26 rue Aux Fers (1st arrondissement, Paris) frequented by a working-class clientele and low-life prostitutes.
Quoted in T.J. Clark, “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865,” Screen, v. 21, n. 1 (Spring 1980): 18-41; reprinted in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts (London: Phaidon, 1992), p. 111.
Similar Subjects by Other Artists
Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, 1505-10 (Gemaldegalerie, Dresden)
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538 (Uffizi, Florence)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Cleopatra, 1621-22 (private collection)
Camille Corot, Evocation of Love, 1850-55 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)
Nicolas Poussin, Resting Venus with Cupid, 1722-28 (Gemälde Gallerie, Dresden)
Guido Reni, Resting Venus with Cupid, c. 1639 (Gemälde Gallerie, Dresden)
Palma il Vecchio, Resting Venus c. 1520 (Gemälde Gallerie, Dresden)