Olympia allowed to leave Paris
President Hollande gives special dispensation for Manet’s work to travel to Venice
By Gareth Harris. Museums, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 25 February 2013
Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, is one of the most important paintings of the 19th century and has not left Paris since it was given to the French state in 1890. But in a move that will surprise art historians, conservators and cultural commentators, the French president, François Hollande, has given special dispensation for the closely guarded work to go abroad.
The influential painting, depicting a courtesan sprawled across a bed, will leave the Musée d’Orsay next month and travel to Italy, to be the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Guy Cogeval, the director of the Musée d’Orsay, says Olympia is “such an important painting that my predecessors, since 1900, decided it would be better never to move it”. In Venice, ironically, it will sit alongside Titian’s painting The Venus of Urbino, 1538, which is on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and cannot leave Italy under government rules.
The 70-piece exhibition, entitled “Manet: Return to Venice” (25 April-4 August), includes around 42 works by Manet drawn from the Musée d’Orsay—an unprecedented loan. Among them will be Lola de Valence, 1862, and a portrait, Emile Zola, 1868. Other paintings will be loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Art historians often cite the influence of Spanish artists, especially Velázquez, on Manet’s style. This exhibition, which has been co-organised by the Musée d’Orsay and the Venetian museums body, Fondazione Musei Civici, aims to show that Italian artists such as Vittore Carpaccio, Antonello da Messina and Lorenzo Lotto had just as much impact on the French painter. “We want to show how Italian cultural models influenced Manet,” Cogeval says.
Cogeval says the Musée d’Orsay will receive substantial fees for the Manet loans, in line with its strategy of raising income by organising worldwide tours of works from its collections. The museum loaned major Impressionist paintings for a 2010 show at the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid, which then travelled to two US institutions. The fees were not disclosed, but the borrowing venues reportedly paid around €1.5m each, which helped to fund gallery refurbishments at the Paris museum. Cogeval says he now plans to loan “one masterpiece a year” to institutions worldwide.
“There is no earthly curatorial reason why Olympia should not be loaned, as it’s in good condition,” says the UK art critic Brian Sewell. “There is, nonetheless, a limit to the shifting and shunting such works should be put through. There are atmospheric changes that all take their toll. If it’s going to Venice, why didn’t it go to London for the Royal Academy show?”
It is unclear whether the painting was requested by the curators of “Manet: Portraying Life” (Royal Academy of Arts, until 14 April), which opened at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, in 2012. Larry Nichols, the senior curator at the Ohio museum, declined to comment.
When Olympia was shown at the annual Paris Salon in 1865, its treatment of nudity and its subject matter scandalised critics and the public. In 1890, Claude Monet raised 20,000 francs from artists, dealers and collectors to buy the work, which he then offered to the French government. The painting was housed at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris from 1890 to 1907, when it was transferred to the Louvre. It entered the collection of the Musée d’Orsay when the museum opened in 1986.
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