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

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.

Perceptions of Manet have changed dramatically. Art historians long focused on his modernity. Now he is increasingly seen as a bridge between the old masters, whose tradition he sought to preserve and adapt, and the moderns.

Manet’s friend Émile Zola first took a formalistic approach to analysing his painting, which André Malraux and Bataille continued in the 20th century, calling Manet the inventor of modern, even abstract painting. They based their theory on the apparent neutrality and indifference of Manet to his subjects, which, they concluded, meant he painted for the sake of painting: pure painting.

"For years I was convinced by Malraux's theories," says Frédéric Vitoux, a member of the Académie Française who has just published Looking at Manet. "And then one day I said, 'No. It's not true. Manet is trying to tell us something.' The disguises, constraints and self-censorship confer on his paintings a power and poignancy that are unique in the history of painting."

“Manet’s painting is a kind of autobiography,” Guégan says. “There is a fashion in contemporary literature known as autofiction. I think Manet invented that in painting.”

Berthe Morisot
Nowhere are that power and poignancy more evident than in Manet's portraits of Berthe Morisot, the woman impressionist painter he met at the Louvre in 1867. Over the next seven years Manet would make 11 oil portraits, two watercolours and three engravings of Morisot: 16 likenesses, of which he kept five until his death.

Morisot would have been the ideal partner for Manet, Vitoux says. “A beautiful, desirable, single woman who is neither a prostitute nor a demi-mondaine. . . She is from his milieu. They share social codes, friends and interests. Their families receive one another, spend holidays together . . . Berthe would be the perfect spouse for Édouard if he was not already married.”

Manet was 19 when he met his brothers' Dutch piano teacher, Suzanne Leenhoff, two years his senior. Three years later she returned to the Netherlands to give birth to a son, Léon-Édouard. Manet waited until after his father's death to marry Leenhoff, and until his own death he maintained the fiction that Léon-Édouard was Suzanne's half-brother and his godson. Manet's wife, whom Morisot referred to as "la grosse Suzanne", and his illegitimate son haunt many of his paintings. Léon is often obscured in shadow, as if looking for recognition.

Vitoux tries to read the story of Édouard and Berthe through Manet's paintings of her. In the first, The Balcony, Berthe is bride-like and ethereal in white, her eyes large and dreamy. When Morisot saw the painting at the 1869 Salon, she wrote to her sister that Manet's paintings "always produce the impression of a wild, slightly green fruit. They are far from displeasing me. . . I am more strange than ugly. It seems the words 'femme fatale' have circulated among the gossips."

Vitoux believes that Manet's Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets, painted in 1872, marked the culmination of the love between Berthe and Édouard. She burned their letters, so we can never be certain. Two years later, Berthe would marry Édouard's younger brother Eugène.

A passage in the diary of Eugène and Berthe’s daughter Julie, discovered by Vitoux, provides a clue. After Monet’s death, Morisot purchased Manet’s portrait of her with the bouquet of violets at auction. “It hangs in my bedroom and I look at it from my bed,” Julie wrote after her mother’s death. “It is so well executed that you wouldn’t believe it was done in one or two sittings . . . That day, my Uncle Édouard told Maman that she should marry Papa. They talked a long time about it.”

Unlike most of Manet’s portraits, Berthe in the violets painting stares directly into the viewer’s eyes. “Did they make love that day? Or a few days earlier?” Vitoux asks. “Something happened there. Something powerful. The most beautiful thing is to tell oneself: they made love through painting.”

Despite his turbulent private life, Manet never shed the pretence of bourgeois morality. Manet’s friends described him as a sunny, affable dandy, but there was a darker Manet who never recognised his son and encouraged the woman he loved to marry his brother for the sake of propriety. “Grief doesn’t kill one,” Manet said. “It is the efforts one makes to suppress it that wear one down.”

Vitoux believes Manet was constantly torn. “As a bourgeois he learned to keep everything to himself. As an artist, especially after the 19th-century romantics, he was tempted to confess everything – ‘my naked heart’, as his friend Baudelaire said. He is caught in this tension, and there is no way out. He hides everything, but he confesses through masques.”

Nothing ever ends in Manet's oeuvre. Friends, relatives and objects from his private life appear and reappear through the years. "Everything in Manet is referential," says Vitoux. The gold bracelet on Olympia's wrist belonged to Manet's staid mother. Ten years after he painted Meurent as a prostitute Manet painted her again, still wearing her signature black neck ribbon but matronly and fully clothed, in The Railway. The sleeping dog from Titian's Venus of Urbino sits on Meurent's lap, and through the wrought-iron bars overlooking the railway tracks one sees Manet's studio on Rue de St Pétersbourg.

Is there a Manet mystery? I ask Cogeval of the Musée d’Orsay. “That’s a way of saying that Manet is immeasurable,” Cogeval says. “You can never reduce him to a few ready-made sentences. In the Musée d’Orsay he is certainly the greatest of all . . . the painter who pulverises absolutely all comparison, the painter who looks towards the future while rummaging through the art of the past and transforming it.”,

Spectre of syphilis: 'In artistic circles it was almost a matter of pride, for having been wounded on the battlefield of love and sex'
Stéphane Guégan, the curator of Manet: Return to Venice, believes Olympia (1863) was Édouard Manet's response to the death of his father from syphilis the previous year. That's why Guégan has hung Manet's portrait of his parents opposite the famous nude in the exhibition at the Doge's Palace.

“His father was a high-ranking official in the ministry of justice,” Guégan says. “It was unusual for a respectable man from a wealthy family to die of syphilis. All Manet’s paintings allude to his private life. Olympia is about prostitution, love and disease, life and death.”

For close to 150 years, from the early 19th century until the second World War, it was not uncommon for bourgeois Frenchmen to frequent maisons closes, or brothels, says Claude Quétel, a historian of medicine and the author of The History of Syphilis.

“They were places of sociability for the upper class,” he says. “And they were hotbeds of Treponema pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis.”

Syphilis was the Aids of the 19th century. It killed Manet in 1883, when he was only 51, two decades after killing his father. Manet’s friend Charles Baudelaire, the poet, had also died of it.

If, as an American academic has suggested, Manet’s wife, Suzanne, had been his father’s mistress, it is conceivable that he contracted the disease from his own father, via her. He may have been infected in Brazil, as a teenage seaman, or later, in the maisons closes of Paris.

After the chancre and chicken-pox -like rash of the primary and secondary stages of the disease, Manet may have assumed he was cured. But in up to a third of cases the germ lodges in the brain and brings on tertiary syphilis, with its symptoms of paralysis and madness, often decades later.

Although the disease was shameful among the bourgeoisie, “in artistic circles it was almost a source of pride, for having been wounded on the battlefield of love and sex”, says Quétel. “Some even claimed it conferred genius.”

When Manet suffered the onset of paralysis, five years before his death, he told family and friends it was the result of a snake bite in Brazil in his youth. Towards the end he was too weak to work in oils, and concentrated on pastels and still-lifes which, as their French name, natures mortes, implies, show the death of food and flowers.