Edouard Manet’s Olympia is today considered a national treasure of France, at one time prompting Manet’s rival, Claude Monet, to raise funds to keep it in the possession of the French people. But during Manet’s life, his work was immediately judged immature, childish, repulsive, and inappropriate by the highly powerful Salon jury and most of France. He was subjected to humiliation when unveiling his work and harsh criticism for almost his entire life. How then did a turnaround such as the eventual acceptance of Olympia occur? How do pieces of art become accepted in one time after being so vehemently criticized in another? Art is an expression of a time period and in being so cannot be judged objectively by those who are immersed in the time period in which the work is done. That is why many artists are not appreciated during their time, or at least not to the extent they are appreciated after their death.
Manet offended many with his presentation at the 1865 Salon, a highly influential showcase of artwork from the finest of French artists. His work was accepted by the jury of the Salon, a group of art critics who were employed by French King Louis Napoleon. Their main objective was to put the finest works in the Salon, but also avoid any social commentary or criticism of the throne. Why then, one might ask, did they allow such a work in the gallery if these critics would later object to it? Simply put, they knew of Manet’s past works that had never met the approval of this esteemed group of critics. They wanted a way to subject Manet to the humiliation and exploitation that they thought was necessary to end his style of art. So, when the Salon presented its works in 1865, many patrons and critics were astonished and disgusted by the presentation of such work. Many said that his techniques were too immature, with no spatial recession or linear perspective. Also, the subject matter (Olympia was a courtesan or what is more commonly referred to as a prostitute) was deemed unacceptable by the higher class of onlookers. This work was not fitting of such an opening, with such an esteemed audience. However, there was some small factions of these so-called critics that could see the direction in which Manet was headed. Unfortunately, Manet did not live long enough to see his works enjoyed by the masses. Edouard Manet died in 1883 at the age of 51 years old.
Knowing the reasons why many thought it was offensive, why is this work now revered? One reason is that the taste in artistic styles has changed, from a more narrow definition of art before the 20th century to a more diverse (some would say diluted) artistic environment. Those who have money are able to obtain these works that are now considered status symbols, a sign of power and fine taste. When a person has a Manet hanging in his den, they are able to show their considerable wealth. Many of these patrons have few concerns of the social commentary of the work and artist; rather, they are concerned with the beauty inherent in antiquity, the richness of the age in a fine piece of art. Another reason why these works are so popular today is that we can observe objectively what the artist was saying in the particular work and enjoy the beauty of the art. Olympia was a statement about the courtesan and the excesses of Second Empire France; at the time, no one was able to see an overview of the society they lived in, one of selfishness and greed. At present, we can appreciate the commentary without being offended and are able to observe the technique that was influential to many more artists to this day. Artists that followed Manet were impressed with the manner in which he made his art and his commentary that some artists have taken to studying his technique and replicating the style. Some of art is breaking away from trends but still most of it is looking to the past for an effective style and medium.
Edouard Manet is one of many artists who have not been received kindly by the people of their time. But most artists are not able to make their lasting impression during their lifetime. Art is an exercise in expression and form, not an effective way to communicate to contemporaries your feelings on current affairs. But the artist who has mastered his medium and has expressed his message knows that it is only a matter of time before their work is recognized to its potential.