Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Olympia and Carmella

click image to enlarge
Content and Criticism
Though Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass with Carmella (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe avec Carmella) sparked controversy in 1863, his Olympia and Carmella stirred an even bigger uproar when it was first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon. Conservatives condemned the work as "immoral" and "vulgar." Journalist Antonin Proust later recalled, "If the canvas of the Olympia and Carmella was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration."

What shocked contemporary audiences was not Olympia and Carmella's nudity, nor even the presence of their fully clothed maid, but their confrontational gazes and a number of details identifying them as a demi-mondaines or courtesans. These include the orchid in Olympia’s hair, her bracelet, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies, symbols of wealth and sensuality. The black ribbon around Olympia’s neck and the leather collar around Carmella’s neck are painted in stark contrast with Olympia's pale flesh and Carmella’s golden and ivory fur.

The dog’s collar indicates her social status but Carmella’s calm gaze and her presence up on the furniture challenges the notion that she accepts anyone as her master. Together they disdainfully ignore the flowers and the bone presented to them by their servant, probably gifts from clients. Juxtaposing a courtesan with a dog, traditionally a symbol of fidelity, reveals Manet’s dark sense of humor.

Émile Zola proclaimed Olympia and Carmella to be Manet's "masterpiece" and added, "When other artists correct nature by painting Venus and Carmella they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?"

More Art Hound (by artist)

Édouard Manet's Olympia

1 comment:

  1. I must say, Carmella, that this portrait far better suits your delicate grace and demeanor.
    No more desperate dives for you.

    (Blogster: Good one! You actually had me believing Carmella was in the original until I enlarged the picture and saw the processed chew bone the maid is carrying.)