Manet’s Olympia (which is in the Musée d’Orsay) is probably one of my favourite paintings. In 1974 at Stourbridge College of Art I did a series of paintings based on ‘Page 3 models’ and I was intrigued how Manet’s Olympia had the same soft porn feel to it – inviting but not hardcore. I went to Paris in 1978 and took this photo which I’ve just rediscovered. I’ve no idea who the bloke is – he could be her pimp or maybe he was first in the queue.
What shocked contemporary French audiences of the late 19th century was not Olympia’s nudity, nor even the presence of her black maid (the black female was regarded by 19th century Europeans as a savage, a nymphomaniac – to have a white woman naked with her maid clothed was a provocative statement). Olympia’s confrontational, erotic gaze and the symbolic references to her as a courtesan (demi-mondaine): the orchid in her hair, her bracelet, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies, which are symbols of wealth and sensuality. The black ribbon around her neck, and her single cast-off slipper mark her as a temptress.
The painting was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which in turn refers to Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. Olympia’s authoritative hand (the model was Victorine Meurent) covers her nudity (same as a Page 3 girl) as if to emphasize her independence, sexual dominance and her status as an object of desire. Manet replaced the little dog (symbol of fidelity) in Titian’s painting with a black cat, which symbolized prostitution. People have suggested that she is looking in the direction of a door, as a client barges in unannounced, I would prefer to think she is waiting for me.