2. Some of his paintings were very controversial.
The jury of the Salon rejected in 1863 Manet’s first major controversial masterpiece, Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe). That year, the jury was ruthless, rejecting over half of the submissions. Therefore, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe debuted at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected), a parallel exhibition initiated by Emperor Napoleon III, where all of the artworks rejected by the Salon have been exhibited. The painting stirred both laughter and harsh critiques from the public, which was deeply alarmed by the mundane setting in which such a scene took place. At the time, although widespread but rarely admitted, sex workers used to meet with their clients in French parks.
Manet had a fine sense of humor. In this painting, the artist portrayed four people having a picnic in nature. The two men are fully clothed, however, one of the women wears a revealing dress, while the other is nude. Masterfully, Manet included three genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life in one single artwork. Some art historians believe that the impressive female nude is Victorine Meurent, possibly Manet’s favorite model, who frequently posed for his projects, including for the famous Olympia.
Surprisingly, Manet’s Olympia was accepted in 1865 by the esteemed Salon. The painting depicts a naked woman casually resting on an unmade bed, her look piercing the canvas. A servant brings her a bouquet, while in the far right corner, a black kitten seems to stretch at Olympia’s feet. Several details in the picture indicate that the attractive femme is a sex worker: the slippers she wears in bed, the luscious silk flower behind her ear, her jewelry (the bracelet and pearls), and even the fragrant bouquet — a gift from her patron. Even more so, her name, Olympia, was associated in the 19th century with prostitution.
Manet was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Goya’s Maja Desnuda. The artist challenged the academic tradition and painted with strong, definitive brushstrokes, rendering the harsh lighting which embeds the composition. At the time, art critics were scandalized by Olympia‘s boldness, advising pregnant women to avoid the picture! To them, Olympia was an unfinished profane painting.
3. Spanish culture fascinated him.
Manet enjoyed painting Spanish subjects and loved having fun with them. He dressed his models in Andalusian costumes and gave them Spanish props. For example, in The Spanish Singer, the left-handed model plays on the nonexistent chords of a guitar meant for right-handed musicians, whereas in Mlle V. . . en Costume d’Espada, he costumed Victorine Meurent as a male matador with impractical shoes for bullfighting.
In August 1865, Manet traveled to Spain to flee the thunderstorm of violent reactions from Parisian art critics. Before coming to Spain, he already had a deep appreciation for Spanish culture and artists such as Francisco Goya (1746–1828) and the Spanish master Diego Velázquez (1599–1660); an appreciation fueled by his time at the Louvre spent copying Velázquez’s work. After one of his tours to Prado, Manet wrote: