Read about “Olympia’s Bosom” on a recently posted artifacts article for The Media Res: here
Illustrating Desire – “Breasts like Fawns”
When, in illustrating Alastair’s piece, I tried to imagine the illustration for the simile “breasts like fawns” from the Song of Solomon, the two strongest images in my recollection (from all of the quintessential nude reclining women paintings and sculptures that I had studied in art history as a student) were Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (1814) and Manet’s Olympia (1863). Obviously the Ms. Olympia makes for a better canvas to place the fawns.
The main difference between these two paintings is as much in the models who posed for them, as it is in the actual paintings, and a little context in this regard might substantially alter the way in which you view them: Manet’s model for Olympia (Victorine Meurent, 1844-1927) was also a practicing artist and posed as model for many artists in her time, and for this reason (perhaps) was thought of as a prostitute (or at least painted as such). Studying the online print of the Olympia in detail as I made the pen and ink rendering drew me deeper into the mystery of this woman, and I found myself drawing conclusions about her life and Manet’s intentions in painting her. She is a woman of disrespectful reputation, in this classical “Venus” style.
Odalisque, the more prude of the two as seen by her position on the divan, has the air of a respectable and classy lady,…
…whereas Olympia comes across as bold, haughty, and indulged, as she reveals nearly everything to the viewer. She wears an exotic gold bangle with a dangling gemstone, jeweled satin bedroom shoes and reclines on an oriental shawl. A servant woman brings her (yet another?) bouquet of flowers… gifts from her clients? She herself is presented as a gift with the black satin ribbon tied in a bow around her pale neck. Her squared shoulders and jarring hand give off an air of indifference and entitlement; “Oh, more flowers? hmph,” she might have said to Manet as she held her intentional pose with a cold, disinterested stare.
Yet, when you study her face closely, there is a youthful naivete in her eyes (Victorine was only 19 at the time), a bit of fear in her pressed lips, and perhaps even an element of self-protection in the placement of her hand. I wonder what she thought of this opportunity to get a full-body self-portrait painted by Manet. Was it paid for by another suitor? Did she save up for this attempt at eternal youth and self-preservation?
The women are painted in a similar manner (skilled oil painting on canvas) and hung in elaborate frames and made to be displayed in a gallery (Odalisque measuring 35 x 64″ and Olympia measuring 51.4 x 74.8″).* Manet’s painting of Olympia was displayed in an exhibition for everyone to see, to marvel at, to question, just as Ingres’ painting of Odalisque was, but I do not think the viewers looked at this one with quite the same intention. Before them is not just an image of a famous “prostitute” (really just a struggling artist), but of a beautiful female figure, just like the Greek and Roman statues of marble that recline in the halls of the Louvre. Perhaps the wives of the husbands who may have been with this woman were there to see the unveiling of this painting. Perhaps some of Olympia’s power over these men and women was stripped bare as the voyeurs beheld her naked figure, free of charge, as close as they wanted to. Perhaps, now that she is seen in this way, the viewer is surprised to feel compassion towards this young woman? You may be glad to know that she went on to become an accomplished painter in her own right.