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Perspectives

Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

A black and white etching of Manet's famous painting Olympia. A naked, white sex worker reclines on cushions while staring out at the viewer. A black servant to the right is proffering a large bouquet of flowers. There is also a small black cat at the end of the bed.

Manet's Olympia: Laure and Victorine

[ Essay )

In recent years, much work has been undertaken to uncover more about the identities of the historically overlooked black sitters in the some of the world’s most well known paintings.

Ahead of our upcoming exhibition, Degas to Picasso: International Modern Masters, featuring an etching from our collection of Édouard Manet’s famous painting Olympia, we take a closer look at the sitter in the background, recently identified as Laure.

Let’s set the scene… It’s 1865, it’s the Paris Salon – the height of culture and fashionability. The audience are the Parisian elite. They’re white, wealthy, and predominantly male, and confronting them head on, literally staring out of the canvas at them, eyeballing them almost, is Olympia.

To say that Édouard Manet’s masterpiece caused something of a stir when it was first exhibited, would be a wild understatement – Parisian audiences were positively scandalised! Historically, female nakedness was acceptable so long as the painting was grounded in the ideals of classicism and antiquity; essentially, so long as she was a goddess, a myth, or an allegory, you were good to lose the clothes.

 

They are raining insults upon me!

Édouard Manet to Charles Baudelaire

 

Manet had broken rank, gone rogue, insulted the academic tradition. He had dared to paint a sex worker, thinly veiled at best, in all her naked, shameless glory. No amount of references to the historic works that had inspired the composition, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), seemed able to save him from scandal. 19th century Paris simply wasn’t ready for a work this modern, and it went down like a lead balloon. In fact, the etching in our collection was the frontispiece of a pamphlet (1868) handed out in defense of Manet’s art by the well-known art critic Émile Zola.

It is perhaps no surprise then that this has become the context in which the painting has been discussed throughout history; all eyes on the foreground, all eyes on Manet’s brazen, confrontational sex worker. Much is now known about Victorine Meurent, an artist in her own right, and Manet’s favourite model, but as you can see, she’s not the only one in the painting…

Oil painting of a white sex worker reclining on a bed with cushions. A black servant maid is offering her a bouquet of flowers. There is also a black cat at the end of the bed.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Oil on Canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

Commanding almost as much pictorial space as the reclining figure in the foreground, which is unusual in its own right, is a black servant offering a bouquet of flowers. How much do we now know about this sitter?

Although we don’t know as much about this figure as we do about Victorine for example, thanks to the research of curator Denise Murrell, Laure is no longer an anonymous black sitter. As well as her name, Manet’s notebooks have revealed that she lived at 11, Rue de Vintimille – only a short walk away from the artist’s studio in the 9th Arrondisement of Paris. Since the abolition of slavery in France, there was a growing working class, black population, and many had settled in Manet’s neighbourhood. Like many of his fellow Impressionists, he would have been aware of the black domestic servants, sex workers and performers of Paris.

 

A black and white etching of Manet's famous painting Olympia. A naked, white sex worker reclines on cushions while staring out at the viewer. A black servant to the right is proffering a large bouquet of flowers. There is also a small black cat at the end of the bed.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1867, etching with aquatint on paper. Wilson loan (2006), © Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK

She’s not bare-breasted or in the gorgeously rendered exotic attire of the harem servant, […] Here she almost seems to be a friend of the prostitute, maybe even advising her.

Denise Murrell

In his notebooks, the artist refers to Laure as a “very beautiful black woman”, but as an artist, he exaggerates her racial identity much less than some of his contemporaries. Laure’s appearance as a servant in this scene is more about alluding to modern Paris’s changing population, and is less about her being ‘exotic’. In fact, some have argued that the black servant in a clean white dress, clearly more than a common maid, further fuelled the painting’s controversy at the time. In 1913, Swiss artist Félix Vallotton painted his own response to the work, La Blanche et La Noire. Bringing both figures into the foreground, Vallotton makes the relationship between the two women even more ambiguous and leaves you to your own conclusions.

Portrait of a black woman looking out of the canvas wearing a white off the shoulder blouse, and a red and yellow coloured head wrap.

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Laure, 1862-63, Oil on canvas. Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin.

The practice of titling paintings in this way […] confines the black sitter to nothing more than their race, and strips them of their identity. With continued interest and research, more and more black sitters are being identified, at least by name, in art collections.

Alayo Akinkugbe, Art UK

Laure appears in three paintings by Manet; as the servant in Olympia of course, as a nanny in Children in the Tulieres Gardens (1861-62), and in a portrait painted in the same year as Olympia (1863). The portrait, originally titled La Négresse, has since been renamed Portrait of Laure. It was originally thought to be a preparatory study for the servant in Olympia but Murrell argues that “the specific formal qualities of the painting suggest that he is rendering her as an individual…”, and that the portrait may be just that – a portrait.

Laure has since been reimagined by contemporary French painter Elizabeth Colomba in Laure (Portrait of a Negresse), 2018. “During the time when Manet was painting Olympia, I imagined, Laure must have walked to Manet’s studio, so that’s why you see her in the street with an umbrella and the beautiful gates of the Parc Monceau behind her. I give her center stage and a lightness of being that I’m not sure she had at the time.”

Researchers such as Murrell and Akinkugbe are helping us to unravel the stories behind some of the world’s most familiar artworks. They can offer a new perspective, not only on art, but history as well. Understanding these hidden stories helps us gain a richer understanding of both art and life. Even just learning the names of Laure and Victorine has changed the way we look at Olympia – an artwork that was very familiar has somehow become even more intimate.

Our Olympia etching will be on display as part of Degas to Picasso: International Modern Masters from 25 Nov 2020 – 18 Apr 2021.

We were inspired to write this piece by the founder of @ABlackHistoryOfArt, Alayo Akinkugbe’s recent article for Art UK, Black muses: who are these neglected sitters?, which we very much recommend reading. The article discusses other historically overlooked sitters, and features our very own Portrait of Henry Thomas (1934-35) by British artist Glyn Philpot.

Has this piqued your interest in finding out more about the stories behind artworks? Then take a look at Art Detective, Art UK’s award-winning forum which looks to resolve some of the mysteries behind the artworks held in the UK’s public art collections.