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Reception of Manet's Olympia & Dejeuner sur l'Herbe

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  • 0:00 Controversy in the Art World
  • 0:31 Salon of Rejects
  • 1:58 D?jeuner sur l'Herbe
  • 3:40 Olympia
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn about the controversial art work of French painter Edouard Manet. Explore the ways in which his painting contributed to the rise of Modernism and the influence of eroticism in art.

Controversy in the Art World

It'd be easy to jump to the assumption that Manet's 'Olympia,' painted in 1863, caused controversy because of its depiction of nudity. But if that were the case, why were other nude paintings received in such high esteem? Titian's nudes were regarded as the height of aesthetic taste, for example.

So if the paintings of Manet and Titian both included nude women, why was Manet's controversial? Let's look at the reasons behind the controversy in this lesson.

Salon of Rejects

The salon system of art exhibition held a tremendous power in 19th century French culture. Adjudicated by the Royal academy and sanctioned by the French government, the annual Salons held the power of deciding the success or failure of an artist's career. The critics who populated the salons served as gatekeepers, decreeing to the public what counted as good art. Today, that system has mostly broken down, though gatekeepers still exist in the form of art critics and gallery curators. Today, art is much more easily accessible and disseminated due to the democratization of art that occurred in the late 19th century.

In 1863, the Academy rejected two thirds of the canvases from the official exhibition, including some works by canonical artists that have grown famous for their controversy. The artists rallied in protest, organizing an exhibition of their own. Though small exhibitions at private galleries had been organized since the 1830s for works that failed to gain admittance into the official selection, the Salon des Refusés (Salon of Rejects) of 1863 is quite famous because of the amount of works rejected that year and the notoriety of the painters on the docket. Some of the famous painters whose works were included in the Salon des Refusés were Pissarro, Whistler and, of course, Manet. Let's take a look at why Manet's 'Déjeuner sur l'Herbe' (Luncheon in the Grass) was rejected by the Royal academy.

Déjeuner sur l'Herbe

One of the most memorable paintings at the Salon des Refusés was Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon in the Grass), dismissed for what was perceived as a vulgar and indecent depiction. A small group of bohemians picnic by a swimming hole. The women are nude and the men chat over wine. A setting that seems mostly harmless to us today caused a stir because of the location, known as a meeting place for public indecency and associated with prostitution. The contrast between the nude women and the clothed men, on top of the setting reminiscent of the Parisian park Bois de Boulogne, known for its rampant prostitution, marked the canvas as unacceptable in both content and form. That's not to mention the gaze of the woman in the foreground. She looks out of the painting directly at the spectator, which was interpreted at the time as shameless provocation.

Both the art critics and the public ridiculed the canvases that hung in the Salon des Refusés, but this attention also galvanized and fueled the momentum of the emerging avant garde. French writer Emile Zola praised 'Luncheon in the Grass' for achieving what artists had long sought: 'To place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape.' Zola chastised the public for rejecting Manet's canvas, which he defended as a landscape distinct from its depiction of indecent content. Zola noted that many nudes hang in the Louvre. While there might not be much difference in content between Manet's nudes and the works of Titian, for example, the contrast is perceptible in the style. That is, Titian painted Venus to evoke the essential beauty of an idealized form. Manet's nude skulking out of the river looks like a woman you might meet on the street. Which brings us back to 'Olympia.'

Olympia

Actually, it wasn't Olympia's nudity that caused the stir. It was the associations that Manet made with the oldest profession. Even though the female nude had been a hallmark of fine art since Antiquity, critics were appalled by Manet's depiction of Olympia. Manet implicitly associated his model with prostitution. Though this may not be immediately perceptible to a 21st century audience, contemporary audiences interpreted the mise en scene of the painting as a boudoir, and the nude woman provocatively addressing the viewer with her inappropriately direct gaze. Mise en scene from the French 'to place a scene,' is a term used in painting, theater and film to describe the physical, material world present in a work of art. Several aspects of the scene identify Olympia as a prostitute.

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