Understanding Art
Venus/Olympia

Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” is a beautiful painting that fully represents its time.  This painting is responsible for many tributes and parodies, but none are more famous or linked to the original than Manet’s “Olympia”.  But the best way to understand these paintings really is to compare and contrast a few key features.

1 - In Titian’s time (the 1500s), nude women were made into ideals of beauty and were named after goddesses - treating the nude this way allowed for freedom to show breasts and the like without censorship. Manet painting a realistic naked woman, a prostitute, with her working name as the title of the painting.  The biggest difference between these women?  Venus looks at us coyly, as though we’re not supposed to see her nude but she’s allowing it, while Olympia challenges us and expects to be seen naked, without even a hint of embarrassment.  That look caused quite a lot of controversy when Olympia was first shown.

2 - Each woman has a “guardian”.  For Venus, the dog (a symbol of fidelity) at her feet is asleep, which is why the viewer can catch Venus nude - the dog does not bark and give us away.  For Olympia, there is a black cat (identifying her as a prostitute), fully alert and curious.  It is a small change that has a big impact on the idea of the painting, especially to Manet’s critics and contemporaries (who also knew the model, Victorine Meurent, from others works by Manet and his peers).

3 - The servants of these women and their activities are the final difference that helps tie the stories together.  Venus’ ladies are getting her clothing for the day, further adding to the idea that she is a woman of high standing, that we’re not supposed to see her naked, etc.  But Olympia’s assistant is bringing her flowers, probably a gift from a potential client, as though Olympia will be conducting her business of the day in this state.  (We are also given no reference for the time of day with Olympia, she is just indoors, whereas Venus has the sunrise out her window)

Artists like to reference other art in their work sometimes - it shows off their knowledge, let’s them pay homage to artists they admire and enjoy, and sometimes allow for satire.  If you ever want to see two artists tackle the same subject in their own ways, look no further than Titian and Manet.

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