Goya’s Maja Desnuda and Manet’s Olympia

Maya Desnuda Francisco Goya, ~1795-1800 oil on canvas, 39x72 in. Prado Museum photo from Wikimedia.org

Maya Desnuda
Francisco Goya, ~1795-1800
oil on canvas, 39×72 in.
Prado Museum
photo from Wikimedia.org

After Mr. Deacon’s funeral, Nick finds himself behind Mr. Deacon’s shop with Gypsy Jones and is more or less seduced into sleeping with her. In the aftermath of that most abstractly described liason, Nick is bewildered by Gypsy’s apparent indifference to him and absorption with herself. “. . . Gypsy lay upon the divan, her hands before her, looking, perhaps rather self-consciously, a little like Goya’s Maja nude––or possibly it would be nearer the mark to cite that picture’s derivative, Manet’s Olympia . . . .” [BM 269/258]

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was the greatest Spanish painter and printmaker of his age, the more remarkable for his artistic journey from painter of romantic frivolities of aristocratic life, to court painter of portraits for Charles IV, to embittered satirist of social folly and the atrocities of war, and finally to fantasist of monstrous demons of the soul. His Maja Desnuda (Naked Mistress) is thought to be a product of his court-painter period, and its subject may be Goya’s own mistress, or an aristocratic woman of whom he was enamored, or a composite of several subjects. Regardless of the identity of its subject, the painting is startling for the frankness of her nudity and the confidence of her gaze at the viewer.

Not surprisingly, the resurgent Spanish Inquisition under Ferdinand VII was not amused by Goya’s composition, though both Goya and the Maja desnuda survived the inquisitors’ wrath, and the offending painting hangs today in the Prado next to its companion, the Maja vestida.

Edward Manet (1832-1883) occupies a station in French painting of the 19th century equal to that of Goya’s in Spain a century earlier.  Manet is frequently identified as an Impressionist because of his close ties to Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Monet, and the other painters who showed together in the expositions subsequently dubbed Impressionist by critics.  But it is not any great similarity of painting technique that links him to his contemporaries, but the revolutionary subjects of his paintings, which focused on the texture of daily life in the city and its suburbs, and on current events rather than on historical re-enactments.  Manet’s repertoire of actual painting styles is so varied as to make him uncategorizable, but his wide-ranging visual curiosity has caused him to be identified with almost every subsequent development of Modernism.

Nick regards Manet’s Olympia as the Maja’s derivative, and it has been identified as such by more than one art historian, but a more compelling claim can be made that Manet’s main models were the much earlier nudes of Titian, particularly his Venus of Urbino of 1538.  As it happens, Manet was an omnivorous consumer of ideas gleaned from his artistic forebears, Goya and Velasquez among them (see our prior post of Murillo’s school) , and his Olympia has proved to be an endless target of historical and critical speculation.  What is not speculative is how Olympia’s brazen gaze conveys a complacent self-confidence that is at once alluring and off-putting, not unlike Gypsy Jones herself.

Olympia Edouard Manet, 1863 oil on canvas, 51 x 75 in. Musee Orsay photo from Google Art Project via Wikipedia

Edouard Manet, 1863
oil on canvas, 51 x 75 in.
Musee Orsay
photo from Google Art Project via Wikipedia

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