OLYMPIA, EDOUARD MANET, 1856, OIL ON CANVAS, MUSÉE D'ORSAY, PARIS, FRANCE
Perhaps the most discussed female nude in all of art history, Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) caused an uproar at the Paris Salon of 1965. Impressionists, on the whole, avoided the nude, yet Manet confronted it head on via a depiction of Victorine Meurent (a working-class woman and prostitute) featuring direct eye contact and a confrontational gaze. The pudica gesture is used here to signal to the history of the female nude, but the slight flex in her foreshortened fingers corrupts a chaste gesture in the name of masturbation. The lines of her body, which should be white, pristine, and virginal, are instead marked by dark brown paint, causing her to appear dirty. Richard Leppert writes in his book The Nude: The Cultural Rhetoric of the Body in the Art of Western Modernity that “Olympia is naked but she masquerades as a nude. Raw versus cooked. The nude constitutes art; nakedness in this instance constitutes affront.”1 The female nude depicted here is looking back at the viewer, drawing attention to the nudity/nakedness delineation in a way that aims to make viewers distinctly uncomfortable.
1. Richard Leppert, The Nude: The Cultural Rhetoric of the Body in the Art of Western Modernity, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2007, 146.