Olympia, 1863, by Edouard Manet, (1832–83), 4ft 31/2in by 6ft 23/4in, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Bryan Ferry says:
‘I first saw Olympia when I was an art student in the 1960s, and was immediately struck by how modern it is. It seemed to me to be a rather glamorous pin-up picture, and, as such, to have a strong connection to the world of Pop Art in which I was deeply immersed–the world of Hamilton and Warhol. I now think that it was one of the key influences in my own development as an artist, and had a major impact on the album sleeves that I was later to design for Roxy Music, and, of course, for my latest album.’

Bryan Ferry is a musician. His new album, Olympia, was released last month.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘The Paris Salon rejected Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, yet, two years later, it accepted Olympia. Victorine Meurent, a professional model, was the scandalous nude in both pictures. Olympia was hung next to Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus. The Venus was far more titillating, but mythology removed it from reality. Manet confronted the viewer with a naked woman, not a nude goddess. ‘I paint as simply as possible the things that I see’ was his explanation. It was not quite so simple.

Victorine’s pose derives from Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which Manet copied during his apprenticeship with Thomas Couture, a consequential history and portrait painter. Olympia caused such outrage with the critics and the public that it was first placed under guard and then re-hung over a door out of harm’s way. Even Manet’s friend Gustave Courbet called it ‘the Queen of Spades after her bath’. For all his debonair swagger and self confidence— he was the son of a distinguished jurist—Manet was affected by the uproar. He fled briefly to Spain, where his ‘Hispagnolisme’ was duly reinforced by Velázquez at the Prado and attending a bull fight.

Meurent (1844–1927) began modelling at 16 in Couture’s studio and became a painter in her own right. In 1876, her submission to the Salon was accepted and Manet’s was refused. Toulouse-Lautrec, one of several famous artists she modelled for, used to introduce her as ‘Olympia’. Manet always considered Olympia his best painting.’

This article was first published in Country Life, November 24, 2010