Art history lecture explores “Olympia”

by Maya Poddar | 2/11/14 6:19pm

In the foreground of Edouard Manet’s noted 1863 painting “Olympia,” a nude, white woman lies across a bed, and some art historians do not concentrate on the African maid delivering flowers in the background. Tuesday, however, University of California at Berkeley professor Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby spoke about the maid’s social significance in the annual Angela Rosenthal Distinguished Lecture.

Grigsby, an art history professor who specializes in French visual and material art and colonialism’s influence on works, said she is concerned with the piece’s racial, colonial and societal overtones.

“I have a deep personal connection with the issues of empire and colonials, and the tenacity of racial mobility,” she said.

She began the lecture by discussing Manet’s early exposure to slave markets in Rio de Janeiro and letters he wrote describing the nude female slaves’ bodies.

Grigsby also explored how Manet’s treatment of the maid was as a reaction to his childhood experience, a way for him to psychologically resolve what he had seen in Brazil.

“He inverted his childhood trauma by clothing this woman,” she said.

The most likely model for the maid in the painting was a woman named Laure, a wet nurse and nanny. Manet is believed to have painted Laure three times — first in a quick park sketch, again as a study for “Olympia” and finally in “Olympia” itself.

Grigsby also analyzed critiques of “Olympia” from the Salon of 1865, where it was originally exhibited. She pointed out the undercurrent of racism that ran through nearly every criticism of the work and considered it a function of a French society that did not understand African females’ entry into the workforce. At the time, African women found themselves in various domestic positions and in brothels and artist’s studios, but none of the practices were socially accepted, Grigsby said.

The maid’s portrayal makes her different from those of sexualized African models of the period, she said.

After outlining the general sexualization of African women in French artwork throughout the 1800s, Grigsby contrasted common portrayals with the fully clothed maid. Manet paid a great deal of attention to the draping and opacity of Laure’s oversized pink dress, she said. For Grigsby, Laure’s clothing serves as her “entry into class relations,” a reversal of past trends.

Grigsby said that the maid’s depiction was significant because Manet did not paint a prostitute and a “prop.” Instead, he painted two working class models.

Art history professor Kristin O’Rourke said that she enjoyed the lecture because of Grigsby’s unique historical argument and her adept presentation.

“[Grigsby] was investigating very small points and making larger arguments and taking a work that everybody knows and doing interesting things with it,” O’Rourke said.

The Angela Rosenthal Distinguished Lecture series, established after Rosenthal’s death, is an annual series of talks that cover Rosenthal’s fields of study.