The art of love: Edouard Manet

A brazen encounter with sexual commodity



Edouard Manet: 'Olympia', 1863, Musee d'Orsay, Paris



In Degas, in Toulouse-Lautrec, in Picasso: the most respectable of early modern art has prostitution as a recurring theme. The dangerous, immoral, outsider woman became a badge of advanced painting. But the great auntie of them all was Manet's Olympia. At its first appearance in a Paris salon, this painting proved itself the original shock artwork.

Manet composed a studied confrontation. The woman-commodity lies in the pose of a traditional Venetian nude but with dangling slipper, bangle and neckband making her modern position clear. She turns a brazen and level gaze at the viewer-client.

Her black maid presents a bouquet. At her feet, a hissing black cat arches its back at us. And her left hand is firmly clamped over her crotch which, the picture implies, is what we're really interested in and so provocatively, that contemporary critics were convinced (quite mistakenly) that they could detect in the shadows traces of pubic hair.

Public outrage duly followed. And not for the last time, the artist was deeply shocked by the response: "Abuses rain upon me like hail. I have never before been in such a fix... all this outcry is disturbing, and clearly somebody is wrong." It's strange he didn't see it coming; the sex industry is still an inflammatory area of morality.

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