The naked lady that changed the rules of art

In the 1800s, most paintings looked like this. Muted colors, complex scenes, and lots of
mythological stuff. But in 1865 something came along that was
so different, it caused shock and horror and outrage. “ the body’s putrefying color recalls the
horror of the morgue.” “a skeleton dressed in a tight-fitting tunic
of plaster.” “takes on at times the undefinable terror
of a painted corpse.” “her face is stupid, her skin cadaverous…
she does not have a human form.” The painting is called Olympia, and it changed
the art world forever. Édouard Manet painted Olympia in 1863. When Paris was the cultural center of the
world. And the center of this cultural center was
the Academy of Fine Arts. The Academy was made up of upper-crust art
critics that worshipped the Italian Renaissance painters of three hundred years prior. You know – Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli,
Titian… And at the Paris Salon — the Academy’s
legendary annual art show — they only displayed art that mimicked the renaissance style. To determine who got in, they had a bunch
of rules. First and foremost – great art was supposed
to convey a moral or intellectual message. And all acceptable art fell into one of five
categories ranked by their capacity to deliver those messages. Landscapes and still lifes were at the bottom.
In the middle are portraits… And genre paintings — mostly quaint scenes
of poor or foreign subjects, painted for the rich. At the top of the list is History painting,
the Academy’s darling. These depicted major historical or mythical
moments, they were considered the best at providing an ethical or moral lesson. Like depictions of the birth of Venus – showing
the goddess emerging fully formed from the ocean, a symbol of womanly perfection and
divine love. Which brings us to the second set of rules. Equally important to what was painted was
how it was painted. Take that painting of “The Birth of Venus” It’s the kind of painting the Academy loved. Its subjects are idealized, prettified visions
of the world — smooth and beautiful, with no body hair and flawless skin. The painting follows the rules of depth and
perspective — meaning it looks like it could exist in the real world. And the scene is complex and layered – there’s
a lot going on. Its colors are ones you’d find in nature.
They aren’t too saturated or harsh. And the brushstrokes are smooth. So smooth
that they’re nearly invisible on the canvas. For a long time, really the only way to become
a successful artist was to follow the Academy’s rules. Which makes Manet’s Olympia all the more
an outlier. Check out this painting by Renaissance master
Titian from 1538. Look familiar? It should. Manet painted Olympia as a direct riff on
Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” — but there’s a reason Manet’s painting
ruffled so many feathers when it hung in the Salon. For starters, the name Olympia was a popular
pseudonym for sex workers. Manet took a beloved, instantly recognizable
painting and corrupted it – subbing in a common sex worker for the morally upright goddess
of love and fertility. There’s not much room for a sex worker in
the heirarchy of genres. But it was also how Manet painted Olympia
was what really changed things Manet used stark and unnatural colors that
give Olympia a cold, harsh look. And look at how rough and textured Manet’s
brushstrokes are compared to Titian’s imperceptible ones. And, unlike Titians, Manet’s painting doesn’t
seem to exist in real space. It’s much flatter and less complex. And beyond the rules, the two paintings just
feel different. Venus lounges while Olympia sits at attention. Venus’ maids place furs in a chest, probably
a wedding gift. Olympia’s maid brings her flowers, likely from one of her regular customers. And compare their hands. People really didn’t like Olympia’s tensed
fingers – one critic claimed she was “mocking the pose” of Venus, with a hand shamelessly
flexed” Where Venus is warm and inviting, Olympia
is tense and stiff. It’s as if Venus invites you to look at her, while Olympia confronts
you— almost like she’s shaming you for intruding. It’s not totally clear why the Academy chose
to display Manet’s rule-breaking painting, but it probably had something to do with Manet’s
growing popularity. You can see his influence so clearly in what
came next. He led the charge toward modernism in the late 1800s. Starting with the impressionists – Monet,
Degas – who adopted his penchant for modern themes and loosened brushstrokes. But it’s not just the impressionists who
owe Manet. More than anything, Olympia is proof that
no one entity gets to decide what art should look like. And, when we look back on the history of art,
we don’t remember the people who were really good at following the rules. We remember the people who moved the needle

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