Manet’s Olympia: A Window Into the Diminishment of Black Women in Western Art

She is fully clothed, shoved into the background of the composition. She has dark skin and a quiet expression, which effectively diminishes her presence. Meanwhile, her provocatively nude white counterpart takes center stage for the male gaze.

When one thinks of Western art, their mind typically conjures up, among other things, exquisite paintings of gleaming female nude bodies. Artfully draped across couches or on full display for the male viewer, these female subjects were the center element of artistic compositions for years. However, a hidden element of many European greats’ works was the black woman.

Artists incorporated watered-down portrayals of black women into the corners of compositions, most often depicting them as a servant or some other subservient being. In “Olympia,” Manet relegates her to the foot of the white woman’s bed, emphasizing their unequal dynamic. The artistic priorities were always laid with the white woman. They would often dirty and darken the black servants’ skin tones to blend in with the background, so the viewers’ eyes would glance over their faces and figures. Adhering to the standard, Manet also depicts his black woman subject as fully clothed, intending to signify a body devoid of sexuality—contemporary opinions on the female body would almost align with this rejection of objectification. However, historically, the male gaze canonically favored sensual nudes. Male artists painted clothed black women not to veer away from objectification, but to impress their opinion that black women’s bodies were not worthy of respect and appreciation. They intended to deepen the dichotomy between the “alluring, pale white woman” and the “ugly, low black woman.”

There has been plenty of analysis by art historians on Olympia herself. In fact, the white subject was a then-modern-day prostitute, which caused a stir in the elite groups of art critics and collectors. But despite Manet’s less-than-conventional persona of Olympia, his portrayal of her black female servant was strictly conventional—in other words, it was racist. Some more information on this subject can be found in these articles: “How black women were whitewashed by art” and ”The Overlooked Role of Black Women in Renaissance Paintings.”

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