In 1865 at the Paris Salon a painting was first exhibited. Some such as Emil Zola declared it a masterpiece. Others thought it a vulgar, immoral abomination and there were repeated attempts to destroy the painting as it hung on display.
It was not such a remarkable painting. Certainly there is a long tradition of artists painting naked Venus lounging supine, eyes drooping with satiation.
But Olympia was different. Manet chose not to create a representation that idealized feminine sexuality. Rather he painted a woman revealed. The painting proclaims both the power and the brutality of her nakedness. It greatly offended many people in the time period, but moved art in a different direction. Manet has been quoted as saying that rather than correcting nature and idealizing women and the female form, why not paint the truth?
So, he took the symbols of the day and changed them. Rather than including the black dog that symbolizes fidelity in paintings, he included a black cat to symbolize prostitution. Olympia lies on an oriental shawl, she wears pearl earrings and an orchid in her hair, and a black maid brings in flowers from a man–flowers that Olympia does not bother to acknowledge. The image is of a woman who stares out from the canvass and she has power within her circumstance. She has wealth and sensuality and is not beholden unto a man. The style of the painting is such that Olympia is not bathed in the golden tones of lowlight but rather a harsher, more illuminating and direct light is inferred. This reinforces the message of the painting.
The painting echoes and reverberates with ambiguous meaning. Olympia is powerful. Powerful because of her naked sensuality. Powerful as a woman. But there is a brutality to her situation that is as mean as the direct gaze that emanates from her eyes. She stares potentially across the room at the face of a lover who has entered her chambers. She stares at her present but where is her future? The flowers that the maid holds will wither and die. Is Olympia’s power only because of those who gaze upon her? Or settled behind her eyes that gaze out onto the world?