Who else? Who but the well bred, courteous Edouard Manet could have put before an astonished public the “female gorilla”, that “gamy courtesan” Olympia? Public and critics were for once unanimous. There could be no two ways about it: Manet had violated a taboo. He had painted neither a pneumatic goddess nor a startled nymph; the Salon’s customary fare, but a common or garden whore receiving a punter. For the first time, here, on canvas, was a truly naked woman, unrobed from myth and history; in flesh and blood, as if she had just this minute stepped out of her clothes. And therein lay the scandal.
The spectacle Manet revealed was one of vices proper to conceal. True, he claimed Plato had already argued in the “Symposium” that there were two sorts of Venus, the celestial and the vulgar. And Renoir soon afterward entered another defense: “let the nude woman arise from ocean or bed, call her Venus or Nini nothing better has ever been invented.” The simple fact is that “Olympia” was not a nude; she was naked.Painting had seen nothing of the kind since Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba”.
Manet protested his innocence, but there is no reason to credit him. Every great artist knows exactly what he or she is doing. Moreover, there was a hint of perversity. The slender body of Victorine Meurent, his model and mistress, encouraged a misinterpretation; only nineteen years old at this point, her breasts fully developed but her hips those of an adolescent, she might have been a child sold into prostitution. Today, we could hint of paedophilia and perhaps indeed, of racism in this painting of young white mistress and black slave. On the latter point, we simply note that Manet’s “Olympia” belongs in a long tradition of odalisques with slaves. The cat is black as ink and much ink was expended on it.
Manet could not have been unaware of the multifarious provocation constituted by that black cat, which was painted in as an afterthought likely a year later for the Salon of 1865. This in itself shows that Manet was ambiguous. Manet took the composition of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” as a ready made, hoping no doubt to shield himself from criticism by invoking the Master’s name. As if this were not enough, he replaced the innocuous lapdog sleeping at the feet of Titian’s Venus with a black cat, its back arched and tail raised. The black cat is often thought of as Satan’s minion, and French “Chatte” and English “pussy” designate precisely what Olympia’s left hand so emphatically refuses to the spectator’s eye.
Baudelaire’s spirit haunts the entire work: ” I should like to have lived with a young giantess/like a voluptuous cat at the feet of a queen.” Manet was determined to be modern, but the modernity remained Romantic and Baudelarian. The scandal was not to his taste, but was he really surprised by it? …
The wonder of a painting like “Olympia” is that we see it completely at a glance, yet that it remains inexhaustible. In the way he captured the immediate visual essence of an object Manet was truly an impressionist, although, impressionism as it developed under Monet and others, became an informal and semi-scientific technique of fracturing form and color into prismatic vibrations in a way totally unsympathetic to Manet’s concern with definition. he was by taste a studio painter and not comfortable working out of doors to capture transient effects.
During the decade that followed Manet’s “Salon des Réfuses” debut as the Academy’s whipping boy, the group of somewhat generally younger acquaintances who were to become known as the impressionists were having at least equally rough going. If they were less violently attacked than Manet, it was only because they had less conspicuous reputations, and most of them were going through desperate times financially. Manet, still with his sights set on success in the Academy’s own pattern , refused to exhibit with them; possibly because he feared a repetition of the imbroglios in which he had already been involved. He was justified , for the press treated these exhibitions as a three-ring freak show though Manet himself was just as badly received at the Salon.
But by now these continued aburdities had stimulated a sizable group of critics and even some collectors and dealers to diagnose correctly the nature of the Salon’s mortal illness and to recognize the fertile vitality of the group that had been forced into rebellion.
The Salon began to accept Manet’s work with some regularity, but he remained an intruder; the liberal or conservative nature of a critic or jury member could be measured by his attitude toward Manet’s work. Finally, in 1881 less than two years before his death on April 30, 1883 at age fifty-one, Manet was awared the second-class medal in the Salon and was nominated for the Legion of Honor by a boyhood friend, Antonin Proust, a career politician who had just become Minister of Fine Arts. It is appropriately ironic that when official rewards finally came to Manet, they came through the channel of a well placed friend: he had indeed succeeded according to the academic pattern.
Manet’s personality is a bit difficult to reconstruct since the simple exterior facts of his life do not add up to the sum of the parts. Manet’s friends speak rather consistently of his contempt for bourgeoisism, yet the kind of success he wanted conformed to the bourgeois ideal. He was distrustful of eccentricity- which he seemed to regard sometimes as a sign of weakness and sometimes only as a matter of social gaucherie- yet he was more patient with his friend Baudelaire, when that poor man took to painting his face, than some other friends were able to be. There are accounts of Manet’s charm and enjoyment of good company, of his wit, sparkle and social grace. And there are accounts of his surliness, his irritablity and his preference for seclusion.
Manet could behave at times with an almost feminine excitablity in spite of the one trait that, when everything is balanced, seems most persistent in his character whatever the contradictions. This trait was an essentially aristocratic reserve, a self-containment that forbade all casual intimacy and accepted intimacy of any kind only up to a point- and, in turn, respected the privacy of other people.