I’ve heard you like boxed texts dear reader. So every week I’m going to explain an important piece of art from the annals of art history so that you can all impress your friends.
This week we are looking at Edouard Manet’s famous painting, Olympia. This work caused a bit of a hoohaa when it was first exhibited in 1863, and was slated by critics and the viewing public alike. This was because instead of painting soft focus nudes in an allegorical or classical style, Manet stayed true to his realist philosophy and painted this modern courtesan in a clearly lit and authentic manner. This woman, so obviously and unashamedly a prostitute, doesn’t flutter her eyes beguilingly out of the picture, as was the tradition, but challenges the viewer with her forthright stare.
All of this was a bit too close to home for the Parisian public at the time, who liked their nudes gamboling in mythical meadows. But history has, as is often the case, redeemed Manet, who is now a seminal figure in art history. Some art historians credit this painting as the starting point of modernism. They see the dark background of the work as calling attention to the painting’s flatness and the limits of its own medium. Thus Olympia is seen by some as primarily art about art, an integral modernist obsession.