Olympia


Those high artistic values which made their first appearance in a clear and pure form in his "Lola de Valence", were fulfilled and perfected in the second great picture which Manet painted in 1863, the "Olympia". With this picture Manet painted his masterpiece. Zola called it the "highest proof of his ability". Most of those who saw it went to the other extreme of incomprehension. Even Courbet disapproved of it and called the figure "a queen of spades", finding fault with the scanty modelling of the recumbent form. Later, when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1865, the critics were indignant because it contained no shadows and because bright tones were placed in juxtaposition without any transition, while the public, puzzled by the incomprehensible subject, vented its wrath on the cat, which they took in its literal sense as an object, without grasping that its significance was merely that of a black patch. The picture, as Duret relates, had the same effect on the public as a red rag on a bull. Paul de Saint-Victor wrote: "The crowd pressed forward as it does in the Morgue, to see Olympia, this slightly decomposed Olympia." And Manet, as Degas remarked, became as famous as Garibaldi.
Despite these orgies of indignation, certain young painters, who saw in Manet a new leader, expressed their warm approval. "Olympia" was pointed in the year of Delacroix's death. An epoch in the history of art had ended and something new had appeared. But was it really something new? Manet did not like Delacroix, although he had copied his "Barque of Dante". In this early picture there were evidently things which interested him, and we may suppose that he was attracted not only by the luminous form of the nude woman swimming on the left, but also by the beautiful melodic value which results in the right-hand figure in the boat, when the brown of the neck and face is contrasted with the grey of the edging visible at the top of the shirt. The older Delacroix, who painted three years before his death the green, white and brown harmony of the fighting horses, did not interest him; but he was attracted by the young painter who followed the tradition of the great melodic values, and fundamentally it was this tradition which he continued. For the new element in the "Olympia", the shadowless lightness and the juxtaposition of pure tones without transitions, was in reality nothing but a necessity, without which the artist could not have created what for him were the only important things, namely the melodic values. What for him was nothing but a means towards an end, might then or later become for others the aim of a definite artistic program.
If we were to cut Mona Lisa's smile out of Leonardo's picture, we should have merely a little piece of old canvas, darkly painted, which would produce no impression. But if we were to cut out from the "Olympia"  the portion we have been discussing above, we should possess one of the most precious objects in the world, which does not merely charm us with its harmonies, but elevates the whole of our existence with its glorious melodies. Here we see the difference between those values of feeling and expression which meet with popular approval, and the great melodic values accessible only to the chosen few.
A work of this kind is not a loose combination of colour and canvas, it is not the production of an 'art-painter' whose recipes can easily be detected. These browns, greens, greys and pinks were not mixed on the palette in accordance with the dictates of professional skill and taste, nor were they purchased in a shop. On the contrary, before these superb tones could be realized in beautiful painting, a whole nation had to grow up under a determined sky, had to develop along determined lines through the centuries, and these tones had then to be grasped by a man embodying the finest characteristics of his race, possessing a heart which, like that of a noble charger, is ready for the most daring ventures, and yet remains faithful to the high school of tradition, while he must have a hand in which the culture of an old bourgeois family still lives, to give a firm and at the same time gentle form to this experience.
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