Édouard Manet – two scenes about merchandise

Photo by Carmela Gross


Considerations on two canvases by the French painter

Edouard Manet, Olympia, In 1863, Oil on canvas, H. 130,5; C. 191,0 cm. 1890

Bodies without flesh, meat and others

Olympia (1863, oil on canvas, 130,5 x 190 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay) has the value of a manifesto (in the manner of a poster). The painting corresponds to a corollary or synthesis of the various portraits of working women made by Manet (1832-1883) since the previous year, 1862.[I] It is the reached formulation of work-for-sale, therefore, of merchandise.

However, painting configures a practice and is not limited to the formulation of ideas. In that regard, Olympia does much more, as a way of painting or work on the invoice, than portraying the commodity-form (which is no small feat and, moreover, by aiming at the commodity-form, it shows Édouard Manet's painting in tangency, even if involuntary, with gait of Marx): regarding the modeling of the body and the expression of different meanings, it takes a decisive step towards the elaboration of a materialist corporal morphology.

Let's start with the last aspect. Case Olympia, as a work for the Salon (1865), was received according to the molds of a (pictorial) genre, it would be like a nude, and the nude, it is known, constituted a central theme in the western pictorial tradition since ancient Greece. In classical pagan culture, the nude, as a deified form and manifestation of an idea, alluded to the harmony and perfection of nature, while in the XNUMXth century, during the so-called Renaissance, the spiritualized imprint of Christianized Neoplatonism converted the nude, a form inherited from the classicism, in a primordial allegory of the spirit.

A study by Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) shows that on the canvas of Titian (ca.1485-1576) Sacred and Profane Love (Sacred and Profane Love, ca. 1514, oil on canvas, 118 x 279 cm, Rome, Galleria Borghese), the figure of Venus dressed corresponds, for Neoplatonism, as an allegory of “profane love”, to inferior values, proper to immanent and sensitive beauty. And the nude, which serves as “sacred love” in such a painting, plays the role of “nude veritas” (bare or essential truth), of the intelligible and ideal beauty.[ii] A "nude veritas”, as an allegory of the spirit, will constitute a recurrent figure of Neoplatonic art and even of Baroque rhetoric. According to such meanings, the nude was used by Botticelli (1444/5-1510), Raphael (1483-1520), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Titian, etc.

To begin with, it is precisely the allegorical and spiritualized value of the Neoplatonic nude that is satirized in Olympia. Like the colors in Édouard Manet's painting – raw, opaque and without harmony –, the nude also denies the classical pattern. The focused body does not come, despite the ironic title – and for good reason –, from mythological figures, but from very real reasons: the great expansion of prostitution in Paris, after the urban reforms carried out according to the modernization and “gentrification” plan, implemented by the II Empire in its strategy of ideological and class war, as TJ Clark shows in detail.[iii]

Undoubtedly, in breaking with the rules, the nude Olympia follows in the footsteps of Courbet (1819-1877), who, in turn, seems to have been stimulated by the challenge launched by Édouard Manet – and, in the year following the presentation of Olympia, 1865, will paint the now celebrated The origin of the world (The origin of the world, 1866, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Paris, Museé d'Orsay), which, like a raised bid at auction or in a poker game, seems to double the wager on the despiritualized nude or materialistic made by Édouard Manet. In a kind of duet with Courbet, Manet's painting, by focusing on the body, also emphasizes the physical aspect of the erogenous zones. And, while other volumes and contours (forehead, chin, nose, cheekbones) are carefully defined in the conservative painting, done according to tradition, by a contemporary portraitist like Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) – on the contrary, in the work of Édouard Manet's physiognomy will often have its less relevant features suppressed or simplified as in a caricature. In contrast, lips, ears, eyes, nipples, etc. they will generally be highlighted by Édouard Manet, through vivid colors and vigorous strokes of the brush on the canvas. Thus, they become the focus of attention, as already seen in Olympia. What does that mean? Smooth faces, organs as vivid as electrical plugs?

Édouard Manet not only refuses the conventional outline, the modeling carefully designed in the manner of Ingres (1780-1867), that is, the linear form (used together with the chromatic modulations), to model the bodies and organs, subsumed in them, as provided. But he goes further and, to the scandal of the defenders of “good painting”, replaces the accepted norm of the contour drawn by excess paint or by the trace of the passage of the brush.

It is worth remembering here the scathing tirade by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) in the uproar over the Olympia, when he stated that Édouard Manet opened the cycle of the “decrepitude” of painting.[iv] In effect, the desublimation of painting, through the replacement of the abstract content of the line by the visceral concreteness of the chromatic mass and the “grazing” of the brush on the canvas, is comparable to the raw sincerity of reinforced concrete and other modern architectural elements that reveal the structure and their main tensions.

Thus, the linear-tonal form, which in tradition evokes the referent in an imagetic way, gives way to a physical record (of the painter's gesture) that acts, in Édouard Manet's description of the nude, also as a capture of the psychophysical energy of the libido that it erupts from the erogenous zone in question and gains thickness, as if in direct contact with its object. Therefore, the observer's gaze is referred not to the conventional image or the optical representation of a mouth, but to the tactile sensation captured and permeated by its physiological valence, that is, by the tremor denoting the possibility of imminent lip contact. Oral drive!

In fact, Édouard Manet begins to dissociate the organs from the body, which is deprived of the unity proper to the narcissistic image. To conclude, Édouard Manet's materialist approach to the body as a set of erogenous topics not only foreshadows Picassian morphology, but before that Freud's structural reading of subjectivity as a system-economy.


for sale

The pictorial desublimation of corporeity is accompanied, in Olympia, of innovations related to the posture and scenic inscription of the nude, which attest to the intention of updating the symbolic value of the topos traditional. Also in the description of the surroundings, furniture and accessories of the nude, Édouard Manet's painting affronts the conventions of academic tradition and decorum. According to them, the classic nude should rest on an unreal bed or hover over ethereal materials and emphasize the exclusive condition of an object of contemplation, indifferent to earthly interests. Such was the sea in the birth of venus (The birth of Venus, 1863, oil on canvas, 130 x 225 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay) – canvas with which Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), the favorite painter of Napoleon III, was consecrated at the Salon of 1863 –, as well as this order were all woods, clouds, etc. that surrounded the academic deities. On the other hand, the Parisian Olympia, young worker of not timeless pleasures, where does she lie down?

The sheets, crudely painted and in an almost palpable way, look like pieces of fabric available to the consumer on a counter. They enter through the eyes. And given the physical size of the canvas (130,5 x 190 cm), on an almost human-like scale, the sheets, whose length appears even slightly enhanced in comparison to that of the body, practically seem to envelop the viewer.

The first step in the clash between observation and the screen is, therefore, more corporeal than visual. Before Édouard Manet, Courbet had already extended the scale of his canvases to achieve greater realism. Manet accentuates this process with the shortening of the point of view, through the described close-up, which seems to push the observer towards the bed.

In addition to all this, there is a riddle that challenges the observer and demands decipherment: Olympia's bed is not only arranged as if it were something tactile, but is also located very high. Thus, the bed removes the floor from the field of vision and, therefore, annuls the spatial mediation that, in tradition – that of the foreground with the floor in sight –, is interposed between the observer and the pictorial scene.

To evaluate Édouard Manet's maneuver, the observer attentive to the history of the painting will be able to compare the situation of Olympia with that of Madame Récamier – of the painting with the same name (Portrait of Mme. Récamier, 1800, oil on canvas, 174 x 224 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre), by David (1748-1825) –, also arranged and extended on a piece of furniture, to be seen. The proportions are very diverse and surprising. You don't even have to go back to the previous case to feel the physical effect created by Manet. After all, what kind of bed is this under Olympia?


new intimacy

It stands out so much in the eye that it requires particular attention. In addition to eclipsing the floor, the bed steals the scene, catches the eye, becomes, so to speak, a kind of pedestal; ends up interacting with the accoutrements of seduction (flower in the hair, choker, bracelets, satin slippers and heels), which are themselves also highlighted. Everything evokes the display of goods in a shop window, on a counter or in an advertisement.

Presented in life size, displayed visibly and almost within reach, Olympia is close and in “real time” or online, erasing all sense of real space. In this way, she shows herself as a good for sale and also a mannequin, an object in a shop window. It personifies the cipher of commerce, the trick of the trade, whose art, the organized seduction of the self-service (from the department stores already being implemented in Paris) would disseminate:[v] make the merchandise murmur from the shelf or showcase and whisper to the intimate of the passer-by, that it is yours alone. Taken by surprise, without the protection of his understanding, tried before judgment takes notice, those who pass by, spy in admiration and, if they have the means, penetrate the paradise of consumption.

The point-by-point comparison with David's canvas demonstrates the precision of Édouard Manet's aim, the intelligence with which he pictorially analyzes the seduction of merchandise. In David's canvas, made in the shadow of the coup d'état of the 18th Brumaire (1799), that is, in the midst of Bonaparte's rise to the Consulate and in a period when memories of the Revolution and the ideal of equality were still very much alive, what loomed, in the foreground, was the cold space that surrounded the portrayed, a virtually abstract space – which contrasted with the warm close-ups of David’s canvases from the revolutionary period: Murdered Marat/ [Marat at his Last Breath] (Marat Assassiné/ [Marat à son Dernier Soupir] (1793, oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Brussels, Musées royaux des beaux-arts) and others.[vi] In fact, Juliette Récamier (1777-1849), wife of the banker who set up the financial scheme to support the Bonapartist coup, was an emblematic figure of the upstart and wealthy people who rose to power in Thermidor and who continued to call the shots during the Directory period ( 1795-1799) and later, in the Consulate (1800-1804), and so on.

On the other hand, in the disposition and manners of the character of Olympia, what emerges is a new phenomenon, very characteristic of Paris six decades later. Much closer to the eye than Mme. Récamier, Olympia provokes an ambivalent state in those who see it, similar to that of the passerby under the magnetism of the object in the window, counterbalanced by the price as a condition of access.

Édouard Manet managed to build Olympia's attitude in ambiguous terms, just like the dynamism of the exhibited goods that fill the eye, but impose conditions. The smile, trapped by the lips, vibrates in the hand – “impudently clenched”, in the words of a critic of the time – which covers and reveals, mocking those who look. Add to this the expression between inviting and reticent, the open breasts, a relaxed hand that allows, another decided that prevents. A scene of promises and at the same time of demands and preconditions is set up: the negotiation scene.



Parisians already knew the systematic charm of the merchandise. In the 1840s, Balzac (1799-1850) proclaimed: “The great poem of shop windows sings its stanzas by heart, from the Madeleine to the Saint-Denis door [Le grand poème de l'étalage chante ses strophes de couleurs depuis la Madeleine jusqu'à la porte Saint-Denis] ”[vii] Indeed, in 1855, ten years before the Olympia, the positivist Taine (1828-1893) said, about the International Exhibition of 1855: “Europe moved to see the goods [L' Europe s'est déplacée pour voir des marchandises] ”[viii] And two years after Olympia, the 1867 international exhibition would reach the number of 52.000 exhibitors.

Mona Lisa of the commodity era, the character of Olympia it has a sphinx-like look, but with a look very different from the modesty of classic nudes. Olympia's gaze, indifferent to the first interested person's bouquet, makes direct contact with the passer-by's and declares herself an offer.

This kind of look, but without the very explicit negotiation scene, is also found in many of Manet's other paintings. In them, the frontal gaze, and in general female, shortens the distance between the canvas and the viewer; defines the foreground as if it were in direct and instantaneous communication with the viewer. This is the case of a series of paintings, made from 1862 (the year of a large international fair), prior to the Olympia.

Neither intimate nor strange, this gaze based on an apparently spontaneous and instantaneous connection – but, in fact, organized and staged, as Manet makes us see – operates in the new proximity, born of circulation, which is also that of the intense exhibition of goods. and people. It marks the neighborhood between strangers, which is proper to the exchange of interests.[ix]

This regime establishes the flexible space of the transaction: it approaches by moving away and it moves away by approaching. Arranges the parties for negotiation. It weaves flexible ties according to the negotiated measure of possibilities, according to the interests of each one, molded for exchange.

If Édouard Manet disseminated such a look in so many of his figures, it is because measuring and negotiating were not peculiar qualities, but proper to every passer-by in Paris – a city ordered from the reforms of Baron Haussmann (an employee of Napoleon III), as a theater or kingdom of merchandise. Marx, us Manuscripts from 1844, used the figure of the prostitute as a metaphor or “expression specific of the general prostitution of the worker [particular expression of prostitution generale du travailleur]”,[X] condemned to sell itself as labor power.

Édouard Manet sets up a similar comparison, placing the gaze of the prostitute in dialogue with any and all observers. The image that pretends to observe the observer, like the good in the window, provokes interlocution and reciprocity in the observer.

The field of experience of art and that of aesthetic pleasure are intertwined with voyeurism, the visual negotiation of the offered goods, the price to be paid and the fetishization of the visual good. In terms that imply in the aesthetic game the same type of game taking place in the streets, Olympia sets the stage for reflection on negotiation – final cause of the general structure of the new Paris. It posits art as a form of totalizing reflection and reveals forces and new circuits of relationships.


Political economy

Once the character of synthesis and manifesto of Olympia, bases and terms (aspects of a certain historical process) of emptying subjectivity, portrayed by Édouard Manet, are clarified.

Two decades later, the painter would return to the themes of the gaze and negotiation, buying and selling in general and the space mediated by the commodity form. But then the playful element involved in Olympia's disposition for a deal or contract will have disappeared. The new scene, endowed with more signs of wealth, but unmistakably sad, is caught between unequal terms.

Edouard Manet, Un bar aux Folies Bergère, 96 × 130 cm. 1881/82.

This is a new riddle-picture, or a labyrinth-picture: Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2, oil on canvas, 96 x 130 cm, London, Courtauld Institute Galleries). The title refers to a trendy, newly opened location. However, insofar as the literal name of the funhouse is something like "pastoral fantasies", the title implies, as Olympia, a range of allusions to Arcadianism and, therefore, to Classicism.

The riddle takes up a crucial motif for Édouard Manet: the historical sense. Again, it is a question of the distinction between classicism or the mental world gone by and modernity or the world as it stands in its material disposition. The tension also invests the optical cut, given the labyrinthine complex of the images reflected in the mirror, and interspersed in Édouard Manet's painting with pictorial images alluding to concrete referents: the attendant and her paraphernalia, with flashy packaging on offer on the counter. In the semi-impressionist scene, full of images and reflections, the spectator will take some time to get his bearings. It is the time that the composition (while dodging) gives you, on the other hand, to think.

The complex multiplies the visual appeals – and, one would say, to today's observer, it seems to anticipate the urban landscape of advertising. It poses a challenge to the naive realism that relies on appearances, and thereby appeals to intelligence. Where is the truth, what does this scene suppose and what does it reveal in the end?[xi]

Let's go to the narrated facts. The drama posed is that of the opposition between a faded and fallen look, that of the central character, and things that are lit: drinks, fruits, etc., goods, in short, that jump out at the sight, apparently endowed with a life of their own. The canvas thus presents a contradiction: reciprocally determined opposites, the contradiction inscribed in a situation. In the scene, the attendant gazes at an observer, a potential buyer, who allows himself to be seen obliquely in the mirror. The attendant's sad look, completely emptied of herself, no longer brings the vivacity of someone who does business on her own account and makes use of "free work", as happened with Olympia, the gypsy, the street artist, the Spanish Lola, or with the aforementioned Nana – all of them images of forms for sale and, at the same time, characters of “autonomous” working women.

No longer able to negotiate and contract, surrounded by goods and images that float in the mirror, the attendant alone and in the middle of the crowd – abstract and presumptuous, the synthesis of the market – reveals the melancholy of someone who knows she is just an anonymous link, abstract and whatever in the midst of heavy traffic. The vacant look, the apathetic hands, placed on the counter, to serve the pleasure and gain of others, bear the invisible handcuffs of those who – because they live off “free work” and without other means for themselves – put themselves up for sale. It's just a residue of sentiment, a process of open lack, subjective energy, suppressed living work, transmuted into a quantum of abstract work taken to the counter, like other goods.

Édouard Manet, who had already portrayed the merchandise, elaborated his during and corollary: it carried out, through the exposition of opposites, a dialectical analysis of the scenic system of value and circulation, of exchange and consumption, of work for sale, widower of its humanity.


female potency

Already struggling against ataxia, an illness from which he would succumb early, Manet completed his last synthesis-work here – even though, ill and immobilized, he continued to paint for some time longer, generally flowers in vases, flowers of (his) illness. , touching and very material.

In summary, the painting in question, in pro-natural size (96 x 130 cm) in front of the scene it represents, constitutes a panel. Small mural, brings the dimension of wall mirrors, current in Paris cafes. Also works as a poster or poster, advertisement of city life. What it says? On the counter, in the foreground, shining goods. In the background, abstract, the image of an observer/consumer and the crowd that makes up the market. At the center, the attendant's gaze, a vague memory, a dramatic remnant of abolished humanity.

The contradiction, the core of the drama whose memory remains in the attendant's eyes, is also Ariadne's thread that will allow the viewer to leave the labyrinth, if he takes the work as a totalizing dialectical reflection. It is not a light scene, about banal customs, as the impressionists did, but a historical painting, a mural at the same time epic and tragic of modern life, as Charles Baudelaire wanted, and also an effective mnemonic moment of Édouard Manet's dialogue with his missing friend.

I do not know if Édouard Manet read Marx – they both died in the same year. Anyway, A Bar at the Folies-Bergères can be seen as the corollary of the painter's work, about life in the market town – immense desert, filled only by images, and incidentally traversed by columns of nomads.

Se Olympia still carried in its ambiguity a hint of ambivalence regarding reciprocity and the outcome, since A pub…, in the contradiction it spells out, fully expresses the end of the myth of free negotiation. It highlights the mythical basis of liberal society as violence between unequals, and reiterates that work is a woman's business.

*Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). He is the author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/ HMBS).

A previous version of this article was published, under the title “Two scenes about merchandise”, in number 54 of the magazine Marxist Criticism. The current text corresponds to the original (in Portuguese) of chap. 8, «Deux scènes à propos de la cartandise», from the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Other Essais, edition and introduction by François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset, Paris, editions Amsterdam (2024, prim. semester, proc. FAPESP 18/26469-9).


[I] See, for example, Victorine Meurent (1862, oil on canvas, 43 x 43 cm, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), The Street Singer (La Chanteuse de Rue, 1862, oil on canvas, 175,2 x 108,5 cm, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), Gypsy with a Cigarette (Gitane with a Cigarette, 1862, oil on canvas, 92 x 73,5 cm, Princeton, Princeton University Art Museum), Lola de Valence (1862, oil on canvas, 123 x 92 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay).

[ii] See PANOFSKY, Erwin. The Neoplatonic movement in Florence and North Italy (Bandinelli and Titian). In: ditto, Studies in Iconology: Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. 1st edition [1939]. Boulder (Colorado), Icon Editions, 1972, p. 126.

[iii] See TJ CLARK, “Preliminaries to a possible treatment of 'Olympia' in 1865” (1980), in Francis FRASCINA and Jonathan HARRIS, Art in Modern Culture/ An Anthology of Critical Texts, London, Open University/ Phaidon, 1992; see also ditto, The Painting of Modern Life/ Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1984), New Jersey, Princeton, University Press, 1989; Modern Life Painting/Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984), trans. José Geraldo Couto, São Paulo, Editora Schwarcz, Companhia das Letras, 2004.

[iv] "(...) you are but the first in the decrepitude of your art [vous n'êtes que le premier dans la décrépitude de votre art ]” (italics in the original). Cf. Charles BAUDELAIRE, “165. To Édouard Manet/ [Bruxelles] Jeudi 11 May 1865”, in idem, Correspondence, choix et présentation by Claude Pichois et Jérôme Thélot, Paris, Gallimard, 2009, pp. 340.

[v] See Walter Benjamin, “Paris, capitale du XIX siècle/ Exposé” (1939), in idem, Écrits Français, introduction et notices by Jean-Maurice Monnoyer, Paris, Gallimard/ Folio Essais, 2003, pp. 371-400.

[vi] See LRM, “Traces of voluptuousness”, in idem Revolutions: Poetry of the Unfinished, 1789-1848, vol. 1, preface François Albera, São Paulo, Ideias Baratas/ Sundermann, 2014, pp. 119-38.

[vii] Cf. Honoré de BALZAC, apoud W. BENJAMIN, “A. Fourier or les passages”, in idem, on. cit., P. 376-7.

[viii] See Hypollite TAINE, apoud W. BENJAMIN, “B. Grandville ou les expositions universelles”, in idem, on. cit., P. 381.

[ix] girl (1877, oil on canvas, 150 x 116 cm, Hamburg, Kunstalle), is in effect a unique and significant landmark of the pictorial trajectory now under analysis, which deals with the representation of women at work. In direct line with Olympia, by focusing on the ostensive look of the title character, proper to the commodity form (such as that of the character Olympia), the canvas girl, after being rejected by the Salon, was immediately installed by Manet in a showcase directly facing passersby, in the Giroux gallery, on the boulevard des Capucines. According to Julie Ramos, Manet would have, moreover, added with regard to girl: «The satin corset is perhaps the nude of our time [Le corset de satin, c'est peut-être le nu de notre époque]», apoud Julie Ramos, « Nude » (verbet) in Éric Darragon, Laurent Houssais, Julie Ramos, Bertrand Tillier, L'ABCdaire de Manet, Paris, Flammarion, 1998, p. 89.

[X] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Economie et philosophie. Parisian Manuscripts 1844, in: Karl MARX, Philosophy, Paris, Folio Essais, 1994, trans. Jean Malaquais et Claude Orson, p.145 note a (Works, Berlin, Dietz Verlag, 1960, V, X2, 1) apoud Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing/ Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Cambridge (MA), The MIT Press, 1991, p. 430; see also pp. 184-5.

[xi] For the reader interested in consulting alternative interpretations in this respect, and which assume the picture as an optical labyrinth, see, for example, Thierry de DUVE, “How Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is constructed”, in Critical Inquiry 25, autumn 1998, Chicago, The University of Chicago, 1998; and also Jack FLAM, Manet/ Un bar aux Folies Bergère ou l´abysse du miroir, trans. J. Bouniort, Paris, L'Echoppe, 2005.

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