Roger Scruton’s Olympia

ROGER SCRUTON’S HANDBOOK OF ESSAYS, Beauty (2009), is more appealing in its parts than in the overarching thrust of his argument. His insistence that beauty—the quest for and recognition of it—is a function of the rational mind rings off key. Few of us are unfamiliar with the experience of being overwhelmed by beauty of some kind. At the same time, what moves one of us, however deeply, does not necessarily move another, equally rational, fellow. But setting argument aside for the moment, Beauty, like everything else Scruton writes, is worth reading, worth owning. It advances a lively series of valuable observations combined with provocative assertions that make spirited table talk. Herewith, his passage on Manet’s Olympia:

When Manet famously painted the boulevardienne of nineteenth-century Paris in the pose of a Titian Venus, his intention was not to present her body as a sexual object, but to reveal another and more hardened kind of subjectivity. The hand on the thigh of Manet’s Olympia is not the hand that Titian paints, schooled in innocent caresses and resting with a fairy touch: it is a raw, tough hand that deals in money, that grips far more readily than it strokes, and which is used to fend off cheats, nerds and perverts.

Edouard Manet, "Olympia" (1863)


The knowing expression neither offers the body nor withholds it, but nevertheless has its own way of saying that this body is wholly mine. Olympia addresses the viewer with a shrewd appraising look that is anything but erotic, and the great bouquet deferentially presented by the servant shows how futile it is to approach such a woman with romantic gestures. There is an intense moment of individuation in the Titian Venus. We are presented with this woman’s body through the lens of her own awareness. And the connection between self-identity and self awareness is made vivid in her tough reclining form, which is not resting on the bed but ready to spring from it. This is a beautiful painting, but its beauty is not beauty of the woman who is dandling her slippers on the sheets.

Nerds—especially paying nerds—were likely not a bother at all to Olympia. And, no, she does not look ready to spring off her divan. She would trip over those slippers first. Still, Scruton’s emphasis on her self-possession and the subtle ambience of commercial transaction is wonderfully captured in few words. You can argue that Scruton’s description of her hand—raw, tough—is unsupported by the painting. But his wording is appropriate to the sense of the scene and the character of the woman. It is a luminous glimpse into a crucial dimension of the painting.

As the maid with an armful of flowers suggests, Olympia is an expensive whore boulevardienne. But to say anything more than that takes us down the creative writing path. Scruton may not think her expression erotic, but her body is undeniably lovely. That generous bouquet is more likely a tribute to her form, and her talent with it, than her look.

In reality, how self-possessed can any prostitute be? Whether a brothel worker or an upscale independent contractor, she is still vulnerable to every occupational hazard—disease, unanticipated brutality—associated with the sex trade. Nineteen-century France was rife with cholera and tuberculosis. Syphillis, too, was a scourge in times before the discovery of antibiotics. Paris is more glamorous in retrospect than it was to its residents in 1863.  [Look up the 2007 movie La Vie en Rose.  An early brothel scene is harrowing. Edith Piaf, though born in 1915, lived in a Paris closer to Olympia’s than to Fodor’s.] Historian David Barnes described it this way:

Common to nearly all of the literature—fictional, political, and hygienic—on the growth of Paris in the early nineteenth century was a profound and fearful disgust at the city’s filth, smells, and overcrowding. Vivid descriptions of “purulent warts,” “sticky scabs,” “unhealthy effluvia,” and “a million beings jostling one another” fill many such accounts, in which few aspects of Parisian life could be depicted in any tone other than that of sheer physical revulsion.

Scruton’s gloss, fine as it is, makes apparent the falsity of today’s tendency—certainly among the art crowd—to substitute art history for history itself. We are amused to think that Manet’s contemporaries were shocked or outraged by the painting. How quaint, how moralistic, how totally uncool. But at a time when contagion was an ever-present danger, Manet’s audience understood Olympia better than even a philosopher looking back through the narrow lens of art.

Scruton looks and sees self-assurance, a hard-bitten and defiant poise. Manet’s contemporaries, bereft of the safequards of modern medicine, saw a source of infection.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Richard in Chicago

    Manet’s capable model Victorine Meurent was of course play-acting this role in an invisible costume, which adds one more layer of interpretation. One of my favorite things about Manet is that most of his best paintings–Olympia, Dejeuner, The Balcony, Bar at the Folies-Bergere–defy any literal narrative or even rules of perspective. This is the same reason I always defend David Salle and John Currin against their detractors. Those who can only paint what is directly in front of them–Pearlstein, Jerome Witkin, Jacob Collins–just end up short-circuiting the process.

  2. formerartstudent

    Interesting point Richard makes about the model playacting. But how much does it really apply to issues of interpretation? Yes, the composition is staged. It’s a put-up job, like any still life or historical or biblical composition. So is every play ever produced. But we interpret the play for what it says, discounting the fact that the “sayers” are all paid actors.

  3. Olympia reminds me of an earlier post that took issue with Michael Fried’s writing style, criticisms I completely agree with. However, he has a problem. He knows that he has seen something in Courbet and now Caravaggio that is very important but he cannot explain it clearly because he does not understand it himself. What he has seen in Courbet and now Caravaggio (he totally missed it in Manet) is an allegory of the creation of art itself. In other words, behind the apparent subject is another self-referential scene. The black maid in Olympia, for instance, has the pose of a painter (Velazquez is one of several sources) with her brush-hand hovering above her unseen palette-hand. The bouquet of flowers is a palette. Olympia (posed for by Manet’s celebrated model) is the maid’s “painting” which is why Courbet complained she looked so “flat”. Courbet knew perfectly well that Olympia is flat to resemble a painting. Paintings are flat. And she is not looking at a customer but into a mirror: she is admiring her own perfection. Las Meninas is created the same way. Velazquez in that painting sees exactly what we see because the entire surface of the painting is a reflection in a mirror and the Infanta, like Olympia, is not facing anyone but her own reflection. That’s why she preens instead of curtsying. The mirror, of course, is an ancient metaphor for the surface of the mind so that in both cases – Olympia and Las Meninas – we are watching a scene inside the artist’s mind as he imagines the creation of the very painting in front of us.

    Sorry to be long-winded myself but much as I disapprove of Fried’s writing style he is onto something very important. He saw it in Courbet and Caravaggio and totally missed it in his book on Manet. He cannot explain it clearly, however, because he is stuck within the academic paradigm. The paradigm with its focus on specialization prevents him from understanding that great masters (of both genders) have more in common with one another than they ever have with the minor painters of their own day. The latter paint what they see; the former what they imagine regardless of realism. And it’s only by looking at art as a whole that art’s true meaning begins to appear.

  4. Christopher_Johnson

    I can’t help but chime in on Olympia, which I think you got just right. Although like you, I’m an admirer of Scruton, I think he misses the boat somewhat here. Instead of viewing her through the lens of her own “self-awareness,” whatever that means, I think what we’re getting is a view of her thought the lens of her customer – her expression of ennui and wary disdain is intended for him. Very Goncourt brothers. I guess one might grant Scruton his point and say that her “self-awareness” is that she’s not particularly looking forward to that afternoon’s encounter. And while the young lady may indeed be grasping, her hands don’t show it: she employs a maid, after all.

    And you’re right to bring up disease. Manet was himself a syphilitic, and died of the disease’s complications. He was most likely already afflicted when he painted Olympia, which adds a further piquancy to the painting, as Manet was probably infected in just such an encounter, of which there were no doubt many.

  5. Studio Matters

    Christopher Johnson’s point about Manet—like his father before him and like his friend Baudelaire—being a syphilitic is spot on.

    At the time Olympia was painted, syphilis was a serial killer in France. To ignore the sociology of the disease is not to see the painting at all, or to glimpse it only partially. Infected husbands brought the disease home to their wives, who passed it, in utero, to children. Whole families were devastated by it. It has been estimated that, at the time, one out of five people were infected. Without that public health perspective, today’s audience can have no grasp whatever of what the painting meant in Paris in 1863.

Comments are closed.