Édouard Manet's Impact on Gauguin

Artists often revisited themes that had already been painted by artists of previous generations, paying homage to them or reworking them in their own style. The Spirit of the Dead Watching of Paul Gauguin from 1892 and A Modern Olympia of Paul Cezanne from 1873-1874 are both referencing Olympia of Édouard Manet from 1863. The subject of the painting, that of a female reclining on a bed, in front of some kind of a curtain in the presence of a black maid/spirit can actually be attributed to Venus of Urbino by Titian. Here is the Venus that inspired Manet to paint his Olympia, directly gazing at the viewer, completely naked with two maids in the background rummaging thorough a chest and a dog sleeping on the bed, at her feet. Although named after a goddess, the painting not only does not display any mythological attributes, it is actually defiantly erotic.

Manet, took Titian's Venus and portrayed her as a prostitute lounging on her bed, being attended to by a black maid. The white pillows, the screen in the back dividing and placing her in the front of the picture plane, the placement of the hand on her genitals and the direct confrontational gaze, stayed the same. The dog was replaced with a cat, the two servants with one black maid, the flowers in her hand by a huge bouquet being presented by the maid. His contemporary viewers would understand the connotations immediately since Olympia was a name associated with courtesans in second empire France. What was even worse was the fact that she was a woman of their time, not some timeless, mythological or historical figure. She had the accessories of a 19th century woman, the slipper, the ribbon around her neck plus the shawl she was sitting on. Manet's painting technique of flattenening the figures with the omission of transitional tones made her even more prominent that the viewer could not escape her. The viewer in this case being the white male gaze, her client. The critics absolutely hated it and said she looked dirty, ugly, deathly pale, and they talked of violence done to the body. Although it was accepted into the official Salon, it had to be moved on the second day of the exhibit, to a position high above a doorway, so no one would notice it. But none of these reviews stopped this painting from becoming one of the most famous icons of the paintings of modernity.

The representation of the female nude had always been one of the most used themes in Western art throughout history. What had been acceptable and admirable until mid 19th century suddenly became confrontational and hard to handle. Paul Gauguin treated the representation of the traditional female nude in a different perspective by putting her on her stomach instead of lying on her back in The Spirit of the Dead Watching. According to Peter Brooks in his essay "Gauguin's Tahitian Body" Gauguin's female is open to the male gaze as well but not with the sense of self-display that is in Manet's Olympia who is available for a price. In The Spirit of the Dead Watching, Tehamanna's nakedness is in an unself-conscious way without the connotations of venality. She is offered to the viewer's gaze in a way that, is a state that is the natural way of existing for this woman, without overtones of sin or commerce. Here the cultural connotations perceived by the western colonizing male of the offering of the female body as a gift also comes into the equation.

There is a story that goes with this painting that Gauguin explained in great detail on several occasions in his letters, notebooks and in Noa Noa - Gauguin came back late one night to find Tehamana lying in the dark, terrified of the evil spirits of the night. The figure in the back is supposed to be Tupapau, the evil spirit of Maori superstition. Even though Gauguin went into great detail about explaining this work, all his various explanations only add to the ambiguity of the painting. If this was supposed to be an interpretation of Manet's Olympia - it was actually referred to as "brown Olympia" -the black maid with the flowers has been replaced with the Spirit but instead of sitting and confronting the viewer, this female is lying on her stomach in a stiff pose, looking in our direction without any comprehension in her eyes. Tehamana's odd pose of lying in the very front of the picture plane, almost as if she is about to fall, shifts the viewer's dominant position and instead of confrontation, he is faced with a plea for help. This submissive position can also be read as the documentation of her rape since Gauguin associated sex with violence.

While Manet was interested in Olympia as a distinctive individual, Cezanne was more interested in the drama that was taking place between the man and the maid and the woman whose face is impossible to see clearly, in A Modern Olympia. As in Manet's Olympia there is a black maid behind the woman on display but she is in midmovement, she is either revealing or covering the female on the bed. In Manet the viewer is put in the position of the client while in Cezanne the viewer is viewing the client causing some art historians to think this may actually be a biographical work where Cezanne is putting himself in front of Olympia. Cezanne has also shifted Olympia's position from the front and center instead to middle-ground causing her to appear less aggressive. The cat from Manet's Olympia has resurfaced again as a dog this time.

The females in both Manet and Gauguin's paintings were of their own time and experience; Manet's model was Victorine Meurent, his long time model, muse and companion and Gauguin's model was his 13 year old mistress Tehamana. In Cezanne's painting not only is the woman's face indistinct but there are no fashionable accessories relevant to the time period she existed in. Cezanne seems to be putting this scene in a rococo time frame since the table and the vase actually recall the decorative style of late 18th century. He might have been thinking of Fragonard in whose paintings there is an element of sexuality and playfulness as well as voyeurism. In the Cezanne, the playfulness is gone but sexuality and the voyeuristic aspects are emphasized. It has been noted that there is also a sense of being afraid and rape in this painting which would be another element A Modern Olympia had in common with Gauguin's Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watching).