Manet’s painting, Olympia, depicts two figures. As well as the pale reclining nude figure, is the black, clothed figure of her maid, bringing flowers (from a client, one imagines). The second figure is easy to overlook, appearing to recede into the background. I have read several critiques of the painting but most seem to skirt around the figure of the maid, except to say that she was modelled by a woman named Laure.

Why, I wondered, was she in the picture? Clearly there was an historical and political context (slavery was abolished in France 15 years before the painting was created) but was Manet’s intention to use her to represent an idea?

I checked Wikipedia and found a couple of paragraphs at the end of the piece. The article cites Lorraine O’Grady’s essay Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity (1992,1994). In the essay (available online) she rejects the often cited idea that the maid’s presence in the painting was to give “tonal contrast”:

“….she is not a real person, only a robotic servant who is not permitted to make us feel guilty…….Olympia’s maid, like all the other “peripheral Negroes,” is a robot conveniently made to disappear into the background drapery.”

The essay is also critical of some white female artists and theorists of the time:

“It comes as no surprise, then, that the imagery of white female artists, including that of the feminist avant-garde, should surround the not-white female body with its own brand of erasure.”

Clearly, as a white woman, if I’m going to look at feminist theorists and artists, it is imperative that I familiarise myself with work by women of colour.

 

Joanne Herbert