OLYMPIA (ÉDOUARD MANET)
When the Salon exhibited Edouard Manet's Olympia in 1865, an enormous uproar followed. Though fellow artists realized the significance of the work, the more conservative public and critics were not as receptive. They termed Olympia, "vulgar" and "immoral." Antonin Proust, a journalist and friend of Manet, noted: If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration.
Much of what happens on the canvas of Olympia was not new. Manet depicts a nude woman surrounded by symbols laden with racial, sexual and gender stereotypes. Erotic symbols were already in the painting vocabulary of French art patrons. Female nudes as subjects were familiar as well, though usually portrayed within the context of mythology. What made Olympia disquieting to the Victorian sensibility was that she was nude, she was a woman not a goddess, and she looked directly at the viewer. Art commentary has called the overall effect of that gaze "confrontational". I would expand that idea further and say that, by looking directly back at the viewer, Olympia transcends her status as sexual object and becomes a sexual being. This was revolutionary.