If you only look at the naked woman, you’ve only seen half of the picture.
- on Jun 06, 2023
Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863) caused a stir in 19th-century Parisian society. This was because the main character in the painting was a naked prostitute. This was at a time when reproducing the female nude meant at least depicting Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. The goddess’s naked body, with its graceful curves flowing over a voluptuous body, was the idealized image of women of the time.
But Manet’s prostitute is bloodlessly pale and unattractively thin. There is no sign of shame in her eyes as she stares out of the painting. Far from being embarrassed, she provocatively returns our gaze. This makes the viewer look away in a hurry. It’s not easy to take your time and appreciate the painting. We can only imagine what it must have been like when the painting first came out.
So why did Manet break social taboos to paint a prostitute? Was he hoping to cash in on the sensationalism and make a name for himself? Interestingly, recent research has shown that Manet didn’t just paint naked prostitutes, but also a black maid who delivers a large bouquet of flowers from the right side of the picture.
A portion of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863).
Until now, the black maid in this painting has not been the center of attention. Her dark skin has been seen as a background element that complements the white-skinned protagonist of the painting. We’re conditioned to see the main character as more important than the supporting cast.
Analyses of the painting have tended to focus on understanding the clues that suggest she is a Parisian prostitute: the orchid in her hair, the choker around her neck, the bracelets on her wrists, the silk slippers on one foot, and the common pseudonym “Olympia.” However, if we pay closer attention to the black maid, we can discover something new.
Why the Black Maid was dressed
The Black Maid’s real name is Laure. A professional model, like Victorine Meurent as Olympia, Laure appears in two other paintings by Manet, both of which depict her as a nanny or maid, and both are dressed similarly. She wears a dress with a wide neckline, styled off-the-shoulder and draped over her shoulders. This is in stark contrast to the representation of black maids in contemporary paintings, where they were often colonial slaves with bare breasts, brightly colored hair scarves, and long skirts.
Jean-Léon Jerome’s Bath of a Moorish Woman (1870). Painted around the same time as Manet’s Olimpia, a black woman is represented as a shirtless slave in this work.
Manet moved away from the imperialist view of black maids and treated her as a woman he encountered in his daily life. By depicting a real-life prostitute instead of a nude mythological goddess, he also depicted Lor as a free wage laborer in the modern city of Paris, rather than a figure that fulfills the exotic fantasies of Westerners.
In mid-19th-century Paris, where Manet lived, the percentage of black people had increased dramatically after the abolition of slavery in French colonies in 1848. Among these immigrants, women’s social roles were limited to being maids, housekeepers, or governesses. There were few options for black migrant women in a patriarchal society where it was difficult for them to leave the house without being accompanied by a man. Manet saw Lorre’s life as a parallel to that of Orléans, who was free but never fully free.
Manet’s France was in a period of political and social turmoil, alternating between monarchy and republic, and at the same time in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, a transition from an agrarian society to one centered on mechanical industry. Furthermore, Napoleon III, the last monarch of France and the most powerful man in Europe at the time, appointed Baron Georges Éugène Haussmann as mayor of Paris, and throughout his tenure from 1853메이저놀이터 to 1870, he undertook an urban renewal project that transformed the medieval city into the world’s first modern city. With its wide boulevards, uniformly designed skyscrapers, and innovative transportation system, Paris emerged as a megalopolis that symbolized modern capitalism, sucking in people who flocked to the city for new jobs like a black hole.
Rapid industrialization and urbanization brought unprecedented material abundance and time freedom, but these benefits were not shared by all. Beneath the glamorous growth was extreme poverty and destitution, especially for women, who were often forced to work on the front lines of life and become prostitutes like the hapless women in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862).
There were many Orléans and Lors in Paris. Manet’s depiction of prostitutes and low-class female laborers in Orléans was the result of his unflinching observation of the realities of modern life in 19th-century Paris. Manet brought to light a reality that the bourgeoisie, enthusiastic about the modernization of Paris, would have preferred to turn a blind eye to.
A split screen with both women as protagonists
Moreover, Manet devoted almost the same amount of pictorial space to Lorre as to Olympia. If the left side of the picture is for Olympia, the right side is for Lorre. In order to emphasize the main character, the background figures should have been drawn as far away and small as possible, but Lor is almost as close as Olympia. The reason for this is that it denies the perspective that Western painting has adhered to for nearly 450 years since the Renaissance.
Perspective is a painterly device designed to create a three-dimensional sense of space on the two-dimensional plane of the canvas. Manet deliberately did not use perspective. He rejected the idea of spatial depth. <Compare this to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534), one of the most famous paintings of the Venetian Renaissance, which Manet is said to have used as a reference when painting Olimpia, and you’ll see that despite the same composition, Manet’s painting looks much more shallow and flat.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534) (left) and Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863).
He placed Laur forward and drew a curtain behind her to welcome the