In spite of his sincere desire to avoid too much struggle, Manet was considered the Enemy Number One by the Academy, who could not pardon him his independence from the illusionistic reproduction of reality.
An artist frees himself from a tradition in order to attain a new ideal. The traditional ideal was beauty. Delacroix invented a new kind of beauty; Courbet denied beauty in order to stick to reality; Manet disregarded not only reality but also beauty. What then was the ideal of Manet? To use his mind in order to isolate his sensibility and to keep it free from any preconceived direction. Sensibility is at the base of any creation in art, but for the majority of the artists sensibility is a starting point to reach either reality or beauty. Can sensibility alone become an ideal? Certainly, under given conditions. The external reality is for any painter a kind of chaos out of which the painter must select some elements and reject others in order to make a whole. This whole can be created according to the principle of perfect beauty and the result is idealistic painting. But suppose that the painter be subjective in the sense that he only organizes the impressions received from reality and thereby creates impressions coherent in themselves without modification through checking them either against reality or against ideal beauty. What would be the result? The expression of a way of seeing, of a pure vision, of a plastic-chromatic whole, of form for form's sake. Romanticists and realists had reformed the content of art; Manet first offered a new system of form, without even suspecting that it was a new system. This is the new element brought by Manet to modern art, this is the breaking point, forced by Manet, which resulted in the birth of modern art.
The painting in which this new system appears is the Olympia. In the same year, 1863, Manet painted The Picnic, in which he represented a nude young woman, Victorine Meurend, his preferred model. The pose shows a desire to reduce the mass to a light relief, but the painter still pays his homage to the beauty of his model. But when he painted Olympia some months later, he sacrificed the fascination with beauty to the coherence of his vision. He transformed the woman into something which is at the same time an idol and a marionette. The relief is light but firm and solid, with dark contours to stress the energy of form; that is, the clearness of the image is much stronger than its relief. The same clearness appears in the other objects represented-the cushion, the sheets, the flowered scarf, the dress of the colored maid--so that the general effect is of zones of clear colors distributed over a surface, on a background of dark colors. There is no transition from light to dark, no chiaroscuro. Because chiaroscuro attenuates the brilliance and the purity of colors, its absence means that the color becomes rich even when it is not intense. Every element depends on this general effect, which is achieved by presenting zones of colors so consistent and powerful that their plasticity is accentuated in spite of the lightness of their relief.
The secret of the powerful effect is in the presence, the immediacy, the rapidity, the magic of the appearance. Beauty, truth, life--everything is absorbed into art. This was not the art for art's sake which Théophile Gautier was preaching and which was only a formula for appreciating the beauty of Ingres. It was a free creation which contained a principle of which the artist himself was unaware but which opened the way to:modern art--the principle of the autonomy of art.
This great discovery was due only to Manet's spirit of independence, to his faith in the art he himself created rather than in the things he saw in nature or in the works of the great artists of the past.
Needless to say, the female nude has been a favorite subject matter of many painters. Besides Giorgione Venus, discussed earlier, it is easy to recall one of Titian's Venuses. Here the presentation of the beautiful nude is integrated with the representation of a reclining lady waiting for her clothes, which her maid is taking from a chest in the back of the room. The painting is not only the portrait of an undressed woman but also of an incidental moment in her life.