At Large  September 5, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Édouard Manet's Olympia Makes US Debut This Fall

Wikimedia Commons

Olympia (1863). Oil on canvas, 130.5 × 190 cm (51.4 × 74.8 in). Musée d'Orsay, Paris

When two of Édouard Manet’s paintings were accepted to the Paris Salon in 1865, he wrote to his friend Charles Baudelaire, relieved and hopeful that his paintings would be praised. But within a week of the Salon's opening, Manet wrote again to Baudelaire saying, “They are raining insults on me, I’ve never been led such a dance…” 

What did he submit, and why did this happen? The answer lies with Olympia (1863), one of his submissions that year that aroused shock and controversy all over Paris because of its depiction of a modern prostitute and her maid awaiting their next gentleman client. 

Though in Manet’s day, he was forever branded as the painter of “that Venus and her cat,” today, Olympia is hailed as a masterpiece of modern art because it shows the cold and prosaic reality of a truly contemporary subject. 

The painting holds special significance in French culture and art history and has thus almost never left the country. But for a joint exhibition this fall with the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Olympia will travel to New York and be on view for the first time in the United States. The exhibition, Manet/Degas, examines the friendship, rivalry, and powerful artistic connection between Manet and Edgar Degas. The show, which was first on view at the Musée d’Orsay from March to July 2023 and opens at the Met on September 24, features over 160 paintings and works on paper, collectively, by both artists. 

Wikimedia Commons

Close-up photograph of artist Édouard Manet. 39,6 x 29,8 cm, enlargement by Paul Nadar of his father's original.

With works by each artist placed side by side for the first time, viewers can see how the works are in dialogue and even mimic one another. Manet/Degas shows how their friendship, families, and intellectual circles, as well as the sociopolitical events surrounding them created an environment for the two artists to produce works that so closely intertwine. This deepens our understanding of the moment they lived through.

Olympia is one of the masterpieces of the exhibition, and its place in the show was important enough for the Musée d’Orsay to have loaned it to the Met for the first time. Since its debut at the Salon in 1865, the painting has for the most part stayed in Paris. During Manet’s lifetime, it was never sold and was only exhibited once after the Salon at the Universal Exhibition of 1867. When Manet died, Claude Monet spearheaded a campaign to raise 20,000 Francs for the French state to acquire the painting from Manet’s widow, Suzanne. Though Monet’s campaign was successful, it was not hung in the Louvre until 1907. The work stayed at the Louvre Museum for forty years and was then moved to the Jeu de Paume, an extension of the Louvre. In 1986, it was assigned to the Musée d’Orsay, where it remains to this day a mainstay of their collection. 

Only in recent years has the painting been loaned to museums outside of France. In 2013, it was included in the exhibition “Manet: Return to Venice” at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. And in 2016, it traveled to Russia where it was on view at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. 

Olympia's inclusion in Manet/Degas is a watershed moment. With all of the other knock-out works that will be on view by both artists, the unveiling of Olympia in New York will be one of the most anticipated art events this fall.

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