Manet’s Olympia (1863) Part 2

In Part I of Manet’s Olympia I showed how the scene is not what many believe. Olympia is instead a depiction of Manet’s mind in the process of conceiving this very picture. The maid is a metamorphosis of Velazquez’s figure at work in Las Meninas while the reclining woman, in front of her, is her "painting".  

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Manet, Olympia (1863) Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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This pattern of the artist imagining the painting of a reclining model goes back to the Renaissance and was later used by Manet in his print known as The Odalisque. Here the reclining model clearly represents both artist and model because she holds a phallic fly-whisk resembling, at its other end, a paintbrush. In Olympia Part I you can see later examples by Cézanne, Gauguin and Picasso.

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Manet, Odalisque (1868)

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This print by Rembrandt (detail at left), though of different subject matter superficially, is similar in form. It illustrates the biblical story of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead. Beyond the reclining corpse Lazarus' wife watches in amazement. This wife, though, has Rembrandt's features thereby suggesting that with his magical hands, outstretched, the "artist" aids the Christ within his own androgynous mind in bringing this figure to life. As a great artist, Rembrandt continually repeated Christ's miracle.  

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Rembrandt, Detail of The Raising of Lazarus (1632)

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When Manet made the African maid "an artist" in Olympia he borrowed Velazquez's pose from Las Meninas (as shown in Part I) but infused her face with Rembrandt’s features from The Raising of Lazarus (near left): the roundness of the face, wide nose, open mouth and chin. In doing so Manet implies that behind the world of flesh (and matter) lies spirit and that only by looking inwards, into the mirror of one's own mind, can one gain true wisdom, the same wisdom passed down from one great artist to another.

See conclusion below
 

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L: Detail of Manet's Olympia
R: Detail of Rembrandt's The Raising of Lazarus

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In Olympia Manet updates the motif of a reclining woman begun centuries earlier by Giorgione and Titian. What Manet recognized in Titian's work especially is that all his reclining women, without exception, represent a "painting" created by the figure beside her. See the entry on Titian's Danae. Manet's Olympia is a fertile woman whose conception is made akin to the artist's own mental conception because she looks into the mirror of her own mind, his. The maid, or artist-figure, is given the features or pose of more than one artist to demonstrate that the current master, here Manet, identifies not just with Rembrandt but with Velazquez, Titian, Goya and the entire tradition of Western art too: all great artists sharing their craft's secret, valued more for being secret, and a common genetic code. That code is what this website tries to break.

To a large extent Manet's Olympia descends from Michelangelo's Pieta (1499) in which a nude Christ reclines "as a sculpture" in front of the much larger Virgin-sculptor with giant hands and Michelangelo's name on her chest. For other paintings of reclining nudes (of either gender) with similar meaning to Olympia, see explanations of Titian’s Venus and Cupid with an Organist (c.1548-9) and his Venus with an Organist (c.1550), Hendrik Goltzius' Sleeping Danae (1603), Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632), Gauguin's Loss of Virginity (1890-1), Picasso's Reclining Nude with Man and Bird (1971) and Claus Oldenburg's Pat, Lying as Olympia (1959). There are, of course, many more that I still have to write about but even paintings without nudes or without a reclining figure are also linked to Olympia as, for instance, Manet's own Boating (1874) and Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (Call Girl) (1983).

Notes:

Originally published 27 March 2011; slightly revised 17 Dec 2012

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 17 Dec 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.