Meeting of two mistresses
Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, two paintings depicting courtesans believed to have had affairs with the artists, are finally hanging side by side
Love and marriage: a detail of Manet’s Olympia, depicting Victorine Meurent. Photograph: Musée d’Orsay
Love and marriage: a detail of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, depicting Angela del Moro. Photograph: Uffizi
Love and marriage: a detail of Manet’s portrait of his parents. Photograph: Musée d’Orsay
Love and marriage: a detail of Manet’s The Balcony, including (left) Berthe Morisot. Photograph: Musée d’Orsay
Victorine Meurent lived in 19th-century Paris, Angela del Moro in 16th-century Venice. Both courtesans are believed to have had affairs with the artists who painted them, 325 years apart. Though Édouard Manet’s Olympia, depicting Meurent, was clearly inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino, depicting del Moro, the masterpieces seemed fated not to meet. The Musée d’Orsay had never loaned Olympia; the Uffizi would not allow Venus to leave Florence.
In an event unprecedented in art history, they now hang side by side at the Doge’s Palace in Venice until August 18th, thanks to the determination of Guy Cogeval, director of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and Gabriella Belli, director of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.
“We would not have loaned Olympia if the Uffizi had not loaned their Venus of Urbino,” Cogeval says. “That was the hardest part, but we got it. The meeting of the two paintings is an exhibition within the exhibition. The whole operation would have been justified for that alone.”
The influence of 16th-century Italian masters on Manet is the pretext for Manet: Return to Venice, a splendid exhibition of more than 200 works by the French artist and the painters who inspired him. Manet had not been shown in Venice since 1928, and the last art exhibition in the Doge’s Palace was Titian, in 1990. Cogeval and Belli deliberately timed Manet: Return to Venice to coincide with the Venice Biennale.
At the heart of the exhibition, Olympia and Venus recline on red sofas draped with white sheets. They lean on their right elbows, propped up on pillows, beneath green drapery. Both painters made the pubis the provocative centre of the canvas. All resemblance ends there.
Titian’s Venus is soft and seductive. A pearl, symbol of purity, hangs from her ear, and a sleeping dog, symbol of fidelity, sleeps at her feet. The pale orange clouds indicate it is early evening. Venus has come from the bath and caresses herself while servants rummage through a chest for the sumptuous clothes she will wear. Art historians believe the painting was intended to instruct the young bride of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino.
When Manet’s Olympia was hung at the 1865 Salon, the exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, gendarmes had to prevent members of the public lacerating her with knives. Second Empire Paris expected its nudes to be cloaked in what the 20th-century writer Georges Bataille called “poetic majesty”, writhing on ocean waves and wreathed in cherubs. Manet’s Olympia was clearly a prostitute, staring brazenly at the viewer with what a contemporary critic called “the face of a perverse child”.
Olympia’s body is taut, muscular, modern. The tensed hand that covers her sex is a barrier. A black servant, possibly inspired by women Manet encountered during a trip to Brazil in his youth, delivers a vulva-shaped bouquet from a client. A lubricious black cat with wide eyes and an erect tail stands at the end of the sofa.
“Where Titian is delicate and sfumato, Manet is abrupt,” Cogeval summarises. “Victorine Meurent’s gimlet eyes and her don’t-touch gesture, it’s the complete opposite of the Venus of Urbino, who invites you.”
Manet’s Olympia “disconnects nobility from social status”, observes Stéphane Guégan of the Musée d’Orsay, who curated the Orsay’s 2011 show Manet, the Man Who Invented Modernity, as well as the Venice exhibition. (A third major Manet exhibition ended in London in the spring.) “This prostitute has the bearing of a queen,” Guégan continues. “She does not lower her eyes before the man who looks at her. This painting is a bomb, even more explosive than The Luncheon on the Grass.”
Manet showed the Luncheon (also inspired by Titian, and perhaps better known by its French name, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe), in which Meurent also appeared naked, with two fully clothed men and a second woman bathing in the background, at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. It provoked the first of many Manet scandals.
The impressionists, with whom Manet is often confused, remain a greater commercial draw. Renoir’s saccharine women and children are immediately accessible. The exquisite luminosity of Monet’s paintings has made him probably the world’s best-loved painter. But Manet is an acquired taste, like whiskey or cigars, a fascination that one returns to. The main difference between him and the impressionists is that Manet’s paintings tell a story. For Manet is a history painter, in the sense of the Latin word storia.