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Art history: neoclassicism to realism

Nudity vs. Nakedness

The nude figure is the most volatile subject in the history of painting. The artist’s treatment of the nude dictates whether her gaze addresses the viewer with a coy obliqueness or a confrontational directness. The figure has the ability to condemn, invite, and often perform both simultaneously. Through the viewer’s inverted projection an immediate response to nudity, the nude figure attains the ability to undress us. The vulnerability and splendor of nudity is that in its elemental form, with no adornment or intention, it is looked upon with grace and beauty but the moment that it dallies on the line of effortful pleasure, it will be seen in the opposite light. Even today, certain nude photos, in the culturally appropriated context, are appreciated as art, whereas pornographic images are viewed tactlessly and cheaply. The reclining nude’s contentiousness can be charted from Cabanel’s “Venus” to Manet’s “Olympia” through the writers Zola, Clark and Castagnary. They argue that it is the context that demarcates the crucial difference of acceptable and refutable works of nudity and explain that these artists, most notably, Manet, disobey traditional conformity by being able to belong to multiple facets of prostitution therefore, in essence, not belonging to any singular categorization.

To preface my explication on Manet’s “Olympia,” I’ll first give some background. Edouard Manet was born on January 29, 1832. He was well educated but showed a great liking toward drawing and the arts. His Uncle Charles Fournier encouraged Manet’s appreciation for the arts and often took him and his friend, Antonin Proust, on outings to the Louvre. In 1850 Manet entered the studio of Thomas Couture and studied there until 1856. During this time, Paris began its massive transformation of the city under the supervision of Baron Haussmann. Haussmann’s revitalization affected the physical environment of Paris as well as the cultural and social atmosphere. Thousands of jobs were created, stores redesigned, and buildings torn down and redeveloped. All of this happened to try to make Paris the most beautiful and cultural city in the world. This idea of change might have prompted Manet’s decision to paint his “Olympia” so boldly naked. But I believe the answer lies in the artists lifelong ill-health; it was in fact Manet himself suffered the physical pain from which he suffered on a daily basis was the result of a syphilic virus contracted during one of his aforementioned youthful encounters, a misconception which haunted the artist throughout his life . Taking this point into consideration, one must therefore consider the psychological effects that Manet’s own feelings of guilt and regret concerning the cause of his illness, and consider the effects that it had upon his life and his work, and thus in turn the way in which those feelings influenced his view of women as a whole, but particularly those of ill-repute.

Although he has been hailed as the first modern painter, Manet was inspired by the great tradition of artists like Giorgione, Titian, Velazquez and Raphael, whom the Pre-Raphaelites had rejected. For example, “Olympia” (1863) is undoubtedly based on Renaissance works and shows his re-examination of old masters – where as traditionally, nude figures were always depicted in classical settings or as goddesses, details like the choker and shoes of the subject of this painting make it clear she is a contemporary courtesan. Also, she does not have the typical demure, slightly coy expression the public would expect, but instead looks straight out of the painting in a matter of fact, challenging manner which would be shocking and considered unacceptable at this time. This painting also shows Spanish influences, and was described by a critic as a ‘crazy piece of Spanish madness’; due to the way the figure seems to be asserting a powerful physical presence. This idea of a powerful female figure was possibly inspired by the Spanish ballet troop who performed at the Hippodrome in Paris starring a woman called Lola, depicted as a robust, red-blooded figure.

In the Salon of 1863, Manet’s “Olympia” was criticized her unacceptable composition and directness of gaze while Cabanel’s Venus, later purchased by Napoleon III, was lauded for its refined eroticism. Castagnary epitomizes this idealized view of the nude in his account of 1863 when he uses the words ‘dazzling, immaculate and naked beauty’ to describe the nude form of the goddess Venus. Castagnary also comments on Venus’s ‘harmonious pose’ and ‘pure, well arranged contours’. Cabanel’s Venus is perfectly, technically drawn- idealized, devoid of any blemish or body hair. She is sexually passive, characterless and more perfect than is humanly possible- which fitted with the accepted style of the time. According to Frances Borzello, Cabanel adheres to a strict set of conventions when he paints his Venus as ‘historically, the reclining nude is painted in the guise of a classical goddess and tends to lie with her eyes turned from the spectator, half closed, or even closed (as in Cabanel’s piece), offering no obstacle to his free-ranging glances over her body… she often stretches out in a landscape whose hummocks and valleys metaphorically echo her curves (hence the significance of the swelling sea Venus floats atop)’ . The Salon goers were used to seeing paintings with elaborate shades between light and dark, and because Manet covered up nearly all such shades, the critics could not see Olympia as a three dimensional figure, only as an arrangement of flat patterns. But this engaged the eye more, forcing it to assemble continuity from extremes of light and dark. Manet chose instead to paint bold brush strokes, implied shapes, strong simplified forms, and used simple colours. He allowed the viewer to see the paint itself as a part in the painting and to see the texture, and elements of colour. His work looked natural with no actual fixed composition. Olympia beyond doubt shows Manet’s determination to simplify. Manet highlights his subject with a thick, blackish outline that closes in on her. As a result, all of these techniques forced the viewer to see Olympia not only as a naked woman, but also as patches of paint precisely laid on the surface of the canvas.

Manet’s use of color in Olympia separates it from many of his other paintings. Olympia’s chest is very lit up making her the focus of the painting. This flattens the image of Olympia by extracting the roundness of her. Everything in this painting is either light or dark. The light and dark both make up two different planes, the foreground and the background. The white sheets, pillows, flower bouquet, and the servant’s dress are the entire foreground layer. The dark green curtains and rust like wallpaper make up the background. These two layers, however, are joined together with the servant’s dark face, the black cat, and Olympia’s black jewelry. Without these elements the foreground would look like it was just cut out and pasted down on a background. The contrast of colors within Manet’s painting appeals to the viewer’s senses. Emotional responses to the painting, such as purity, are caused by the white colors of the bed and the woman upon the sheets. Her white, pure skin tone relates to the natural association with virgin purity. The darkness that surrounds the women upon the bed then relates to dark, harmful feelings that most relate to evil. The woman upon the bed inhibits the natural innocence of the painting. The flower that is placed within her hair contains colors of pink and red hues. These brighter colors of the painting bring a very strong interest to the woman’s head and facial features. There are other various color relationships within this painting as well. The different flowers seen in the bouquet can also be seen in the blanket Olympia is laying on. The dress of the servant matches that blanket also. The wall in the background coincides with the couch or bed that she is laying on. Overall the repetition of color allows the painting to flow smoothly. The use of color within the painting allows different perspectives based on feelings and emotions.

The subject matter of this painting is both intriguing as well as artistic. The woman, Olympia, is portrayed in a very different way than most of paintings in that time period. Her naked body shows her physical beauty, but the way she is propped upon the bed gives the idea of her not having respect for her personal body. The reason for this is that other paintings of this time show women presenting themselves in a more graceful matter, stereotypically ladylike. Her complete nudity, with the exception of her bracelet, necklace, and shoes shows that she feels that accents are needed to make her beautiful. If the woman’s view of herself was different she would see herself and her body as a piece of art work within itself. Her jewelry, flower, and shoes show us she needs more to feel beauty outwardly. The bed beneath her gives the pretrial of laziness because it is unmade. Yet the lines of the sheets accent her body curves to give an even idea of shape. Some might view her as a sexual partner to many men because of her willingness to be nude and the flowers that are being brought to her by the servant. The flowers symbolize Olympia being very lady-like, and proper. However she maintains a very impersonal relationship with the viewer because of her flat gaze.

Camille Lemonnier states that ‘in order for a nude to stay pure in art she must be made impersonal ‘ and this is what Cabanel does by draping the arm across Venus’s face, obscuring it and allowing her just to ‘peek’ out through half-closed eyelids and by ridding her body of ‘imperfections’ (which explains the absence of pubic hair) that make her personalized, and therefore flawed. The view that comes across very strongly in Castagnary’s account is that all artists that paint nudes should strive to create perfection. This is a very different view compared to both Zola and Clark. Cabanel also includes the group of flying cupids that accompany Venus on her journey (‘to finally stand erect and reveal herself to men’ as Castagnary puts it). They play the part of the necessary ‘allegorical trappings’ that must be included in a ‘traditional’ reclining nude, as the aim of the painter is to elevate his model to ‘goddess’ status and present her idealized, modest form to the spectator to appreciate and admire in her ‘immaculate’ beauty. By placing cupids in his painting it ensured that the spectator would know that this was Venus- not just a ‘naked’ girl Cabanel got to model for him, a ‘mistake’ Manet makes with his Olympia.

The fact that Manet copied his model, in Zola’s words, ‘just as she was’ caused much shock and outrage among the crowd at the salon of 1863. Manet ‘disrupted the convention that the reclining nude should in no way cause embarrassment to the viewer. He caused a scandal by posing his model as a modern woman (with no allusions to her being a goddess) who stared boldly back at the spectator, challenging and discomforting.’ In Zola’s account of Manet’s Olympia he focuses on the technical merits of the painting and highlights the ‘new style’ that Manet was painting in, saying that ‘everything is simplified’ and that ‘if you wish to construct reality you must step back a bit’, he believes Manet had ‘performed a miracle’. This view differs highly from Castagnary’s, as in his account of Cabanel’s Venus he stresses the fact that Cabanel is a ‘skilful draughtsman’ and much emphasis is placed on creating a ‘technically correct’ painting. However it is my view that Venus in Cabanel’s work doesn’t sit as comfortably in her setting as Manet’s Olympia does in hers. To me Venus appears ‘stuck on’ to the crest of the wave- as if Cabanel had sketched his model first and added the background in later, working it around his model and not actually incorporating her into the scene very effectively.

However, despite Manet’s ‘miracle’ brushwork and his ‘courteous nod’ to Titian’s Venus of Urbino people found the painting offensive. We can clearly distinguish Olympia as being a courtesan and this is what I believe caused the public react in a hostile manner towards it. She is adorned with many of the trappings that would have been familiar to them as they would have been able to tell she was a prostitute- her pink flower placed on the side of her head, her black ribbon around her neck and slipper dangling from her foot. A black maid offers flowers to her- no doubt sent by one of her clients, also whereas Titian’s Venus ‘delicately covers her sex’, Olympia’s flexed hand firmly protects hers, as if to refuse to let the viewers eye roam freely over her. This, accompanied with her calm, almost insolent glare further adds to the feeling of discomfort the visitors to the salon must have felt.

There were many prostitutes around at this time that chose ancient names for themselves (like for example ‘Olympia’ and ‘Aphrodite’) and numerous members of the nobility kept open mistresses. It was normal to go about your business and family life during the day then mix with women like Olympia at night. These high class men would have attended the Salon with their families and been confronted with something from their other life- a prostitute. The fact that she was a prostitute elevated to ‘goddess’ status many people thought was unacceptable. Countless felt that this kind of image didn’t fit in the setting of a respectable salon. It’s because of this fact that Zola states that Manet’s work is more real than any other- ‘when other painters correct nature (as Cabanel does in his work) they lie… why not tell the truth?’ He says that Olympia is a ‘girl of our own times whom we have met in the streets’. Manet incorporated the present with the classical in a way that had never been seen before, it was a comment on society but more importantly he wanted to capture his subject as she really was. ‘Titian turned his model into a goddess, whereas Manet turned Titian’s goddess back into a simple woman’.

Here we see the differences in Castagnary and Zola’s opinion. It’s my impression that Castagnary advocated that nudes should be objects of perfection to be viewed as a way of deepening our appreciation of beauty, whereas Zola stresses the importance of ‘telling the truth’ and painting from real life, to create a comment on society. However Clark takes a different stance on the nude altogether and argues that the nude’s purpose is to stir ‘erotic feelings’ within us- if it fails in this objective he believes the artist has created ‘bad art’.

Clark says this is the ‘obvious’ point of the nude, and that ‘however abstract, it shouldn’t fail to arouse in us some vestige of erotic feeling’. Manet’s Olympia certainly does this and so do countless other artist’s versions of the nude. Artists like Giorgione and Ingres show how the nude can be erotic in the ‘traditional’ sense and artists such as Henry Moore, Modigliani, Picasso and Egon Schiele have explored new ways of portraying the nude- set free by Manet’s rebellion in 1863. However I do not wholly agree with Clark’s view that the nude should always be erotic as I think that the nude evoke other feelings besides this. For example Egon Schiele can emit the feeling that is conveyed to me is one of intense vulnerability and this is something Clarke doesn’t explore at all. To be nude/naked is to be stripped of our clothes, laid bare for all to see with nothing to hide us. It is true to say also that many nude paintings are ‘too’ erotic- to the point where as a spectator you feel more like a voyeur.

Lucien Freud’s painting Naked Girl Asleep for example, shocks me whenever I look at it, as do any of his paintings. However it is true to say that in the period we are living in we have been desensitized, which makes me believe that my reaction to Freud’s work is similar to the salon goers of Manet’s day, to his Olympia. It’s my opinion that the subject in Naked Girl Asleep is placed centrally on the canvas so that it forces you to look at her (much like how Manet made the focal point of his painting, Olympia’s eyes where she challenges you to engage with her). Everything in Freud’s piece seems too stark and amplified, the rib cage juts out and the skin tone of the girl has an almost ‘death like’ quality. Funnily enough this view is very similar to comments made by critics of Manet’s time about Olympia’s ‘dirty flesh’.

I think it is very important to remind ourselves therefore of the period that each of these extracts were written in, as both Castagnary and Zola’s account come from 1863, whereas the extract from Clark’s book was written in 1956 and therefore what society found ‘acceptable’ as art had changed quite dramatically. For centuries the reclining nude had been constrained by rules and conventions. ‘After 1900 a reclining nude could be fractured by cubism or dissolved by abstraction… painters were able to depict the previously unemitable. The nudes are no longer passive like Cabanel’s Venus but force you to interact with them, as did Manet’s Olympia.

However, I do agree with Clarke’s point that a nude should be erotic, but I don’t believe that is it’s only purpose. I also agree with his point that if it does not evoke any feeling then it is ‘bad art’ and I think this is true to says of all art in every genre. I believe a painting has to make you feel something whether it’s a bad feeling or a good one, as then it is creating a response- this is what I believe good art does. For me I get more out of looking at Manet’s Olympia than I do looking at Cabanel’s Venus as I feel there is more to engage with in the painting- the black servant presenting a bouquet of flowers, the cat arching its back and the mystery this creates. Is the cat arching his back and hissing because an unexpected person has just walked into Olympia’s room? Has Olympia sat up straighter, placed her hand coyly over her pubic area and met an unannounced guest with accusing, challenging eyes? Are we, as the spectator, in the position of someone bursting in? Is it us she challenges, looking out as we look in?

Cabanel’s painting in contrast fills me with none of these questions apart from the fact that I want to know why it is that Cabanel thought it acceptable to ‘plonk’ Venus on top of the wave; I feel that she and the background do not fit together at all. Saying this I wouldn’t say that Cabanel’s Venus was completely devoid of any erotic overtones, as I believe the way she gazes out at the spectator through half closed eyes is, in a way, inviting. I think the main thing that irritates me about this painting though is her passivity, almost as if she can’t be bothered to really acknowledge you. She seems resigned to the fact that she is there as an object of desire and just accepts it. Whereas Olympia is much more aware of her sexuality and is in control of it- this to me, living in a post-feminist era is a lot more interesting and I feel I can identify with the painting more.

In conclusion I believe that each of the writer’s attitudes towards the nude in the three extracts is valid and interesting. I can see Castagnary’s point that the nude should be ‘perfect’ as it can be an object of beauty, but this is an idealized view of how a woman should be. This view is still prevalent today in the culture we live in, where we are bombarded with images of ‘perfect’ (often airbrushed models) on a daily basis. The idea of what perfection is may have changed but the concept has not. I believe that Zola’s opinion that painters should ‘tell the truth’ is correct in reference to painting the nude, as I agree with showing the body as it is, complete with every blemish as Picasso said ‘if it is pure (as Venus is in Cabanel’s painting) it is not art’ . I also agree with Clark to some extent when he says that a nude’s purpose is to be erotic, but I do not believe that this is its only purpose. The nude can evoke all sorts of feelings within the viewer- feelings of pity, of empathy, of amazement, or of appreciation of our human bodies. ‘To be nude is to revert back to the way we were in the beginning.”


  • CLARK, T.J.- Olympia’s Choice, The Painting Of Modern Life- Princeton- 1984- p. 212, p.214
  • BORZELLO, Frances- Nude Awakening- The Guardian Online- 2009 (Found at//,11710,824240,00.html)
  • CLARK, Kenneth- The Nude- A Study Of Ideal Art- John Murray- London- 1956; repr 1957- p. 6

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