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The 19th Century’s Most Scandalous Painting Comes to New York - Printable Version

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The 19th Century’s Most Scandalous Painting Comes to New York - David Lockmiller - 09-17-2023 08:44 AM

New York Times
September 9, 2023

Manet’s 1863 painting “Olympia,” in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, will be the focal point of “Manet/Degas,” one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major fall exhibitions.

[W]hen the Parisian crowds rolled into the Salon of 1865, they went berserk in front of Édouard Manet’s painting of a courtesan, her maid and her high-strung black cat. Spectators were sobbing, shouting, getting into scuffles; the Salon had to hire armed guards.

“Manet/Degas” was a hit in Paris this past spring; with 670,000 visitors, it became the Orsay’s third most popular show ever. . . .The exhibition tracks the two painters’ social worlds and family connections, as well as the artistic impact of political events such as the American Civil War. (Manet was revolted by slavery since a teenage trip to Brazil; Degas had relatives in New Orleans and painted his family’s cotton office.)

Manet’s bored prostitute in her unmade bed, stripped of all the Venusian grandeur in which male artists once dressed the female nude, has become the very image of modernity.

[I]t turns out that Olympia, or at least her model, has been to New York before. Last month, the anthropologist James Fairhead presented the astounding discovery of a newspaper interview from 1869 with a redheaded French dancer appearing onstage in New York. An enterprising producer had brought her from Paris to perform the cancan at a Broadway variety — and her name was Victorine Meurent.

Manet’s most famous model, it seems, was touring the United States with a comic opera troupe in 1868-69. After a scandalous opening night in Manhattan (which must have felt to her like déjà vu) a journalist from the Jersey City Evening Times came to the theater for an interview. “She was modest,” reports this rediscovered profile, “knew a good deal of English, had plenty of wit.” In her dressing room between cancans, Meurent “was copying a watercolor painting of one of our best American artists; and the copy was better than the original.”