When French painter Édouard Manet unveiled his portrait of a reclining nude woman called Olympia in 1865, it sparked a flurry of controversy. It wasn’t the nudity that shocked audiences, however, but the defiant gaze of the figure and a suggestion that she was a prostitute.
The same scene has filled a local painter’s canvas, with one significant change and a new provocation: Artist Manon Elder has replaced Olympia with a man.
“One hundred and fifty years later I asked myself the question: If Olympia became Olympio, would it cause a stir? The painting of Olympio became my Odyssey,” she says in a video she created documenting her work.
Elder began work on Olympio by projecting an image of the original onto a canvas of the same size and sketching it out. She visited the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, making as many notes and sketches a possible in pencil crayon, in an attempt to capture the right colours and textures, down to the brush stroke. Everything is to scale (51.3 inches by 74.8 inches) and the background elements the same, including the maid, black cat, bedding and curtains.
But it took her five years to find the right model.
“I was trying to get the same feeling of Victorine Meurent, the model who was there for Manet,” she said.
“I wanted the same kind of build and look. He has, for me, an androgynous look and a slight build, he’s a very handsome man with curly hair. He just sort of made me think of her and I was waiting for someone who would make me feel that way.”
The male model has chosen to remain anonymous, she said.
Elder has been invited as a keynote speaker to Yale University Sept. 21 and 22 for a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Olympia.
Joining her will be art scholars and historians, however Manon says she will be the only artist giving a keynote address.
Her lecture is called Reinterpreting the Reclining Nude, and Elder plans to talk about the ways artists copy and inspire one another.
“I’m going to look at how a lot of art history has been made by artists riffing on other works of art,” she said.
Manet’s Olympia, for example, borrowed its composition from Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538. Titian, in turn, had borrowed the form from Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus.
Meanwhile, Paul Gauguin’s 1892 Manao Tupapau and Paul Cézanne’s A Modern Olympia from 1973-74 both reference Manet’s work.
Each time, she said, the artist has adapted the figure to reflect or challenge some aspect of his society.
Elder said she hopes Olympio makes audiences reconsider the ways we represent men and women in art.
“I think in making that [gender] change, it poses the question and challenges the viewer,” Elder said in an interview.
“Do we really want to represent [men and women] that way?”