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a close up of a bookIn 1865, Edouard Manet caused a scandal at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of Rejects), exhibition outside of the Official Salon, by presenting his “Olympia”, which he painted two years earlier. This scene of a prostitute waiting for her client marks a real break in the history of art. Without idealization, it is an impetus towards modernity, towards contemporary reality. The painter presented here a scene of prostitution, in a room without depth. Olympia is the common nickname for courtesans of the Second Empire.

How did the artist organize his painting?
In the foreground; a young girl is lying, naked on a draped couch, her hand resting on her genitals. Her hair is tied. Her gaze is straight, frank and confident. Her feet seem dirty. She wears unpretentious, simple jewelry. Here, the artist works with different shades of white, ivory. The light is bright. At the time, Victorine Meurent, a well-known model, could be easily identified.

In contrast, the background is treated with greens, browns and blues, like the backstage curtains. A black servant brings a bouquet of flowers, certainly offered by an admirer. Laure, regularly served as a model for the painter in The Négresse and Portrait of Laure.

A black cat, symbol of lubricity, stands at the foot of the nude. According to the latest x-rays, it was painted in a second phase. Its iridescent hair, its stupefied attitude, make it a very alive presence. It embodies the pulsating life, the emotion. Is this an allusion to the spectator that we are?

With the scandal, Manet will say “I did what I saw”. Inspired by the Venus of Titian, the Maya of Goya or even the Odalisque of Ingres. The rupture is however affirmed.

In the Second Empire, nude scenes were accepted if mythological, allegorical or symbolic. While Manet chooses a central character, ordinary and well known by all, Victorine Meurent. The characters are presented with their faults, not idealized. The model has dirty feet. The painter is objective. The treatment of the naked skin, these variations of white will cause scandals. The most acerbic critics will say that this young girl must certainly have left the morgue.

This shallow scene with cold tones attracts the viewer. We become an actor, a voyeur. The construction of the painting invites the viewer’s gaze to land on the girl’s hand, hiding her gender. Her gaze, in full light contemplates the viewer regardless of the angle of observation. The correspondence between the light source and the gaze of the spectators gives them the impression that they are stripping the woman. We are as if caught up in the scene.

Édouard Manet is considered one of the fathers of impressionism. But his concern for reality, his use of color and his treatment of light make him a unique artist, innovative and not academic. In 1884, the son of the widow Manet, Léon Leenhoff, bought the painting in auction.

At the preliminary exhibition, the scandal linked to the masterpiece remains strong. While an American collector intends to buy it, Claude Monet launches a subscription with these artist friends and collectors to buy the painting and donate it to the Louvre. Mr. Bellio, doctor and collector of the Impressionists summarizes the operation as follows: “It will have the triple merit of being a tribute paid to the memory of this poor dear Manet, of coming to the aid of his widow in a discreet manner and finally of keep a truly valuable work in France”.

In 1890, the painting entered the collections of the Luxembourg Museum,
Today it is a must for the collections of Orsay Museum.

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