WikiJournal Preprints/DARK REFLECTIONS: Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! and Manet’s Olympia

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The most controversial paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edouard Manet served as discomfiting mirrors of societal changes in Victorian London and Second Empire Paris.

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In 1849 the first exhibition of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was held in London, at the Royal Academy and the Hyde Park Corner Gallery. [1] The work of the PRB as a whole was subjected to favourable reviews [2]; one of the most notable paintings of the exhibition was Girlhood of Mary Virgin [fig.1] by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the first painting in a planned triptych depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mother.[3]

Rossetti’s painting was characteristic of the PRB in a number of respects. Most notable is the absence of a book or a scroll near Mary for her to read: a feature that was typically included in depictions of St Anne when teaching a young Mary. Reading a book was ‘an occupation incompatible with these times,’ as Rossetti himself once wrote.[4] One of the tenets of the PRB was accuracy within a given historic context when painting religious themes.[5] To Rossetti, it seemed improbable that the humble girl depicted in the New Testament was able to read even one of the books stacked in front of her. Basic literacy was not even a given among young women in Britain at the time, much less in the Middle East nearly 2 millennia earlier. [6]

‘In order, therefore, to attempt something more probable and at the same time less commonplace,’ Rossetti continued, ‘I have represented the future Mother of Our Lord as occupied in embroidering a lily,’[7] the flower typically appearing with Mary in religious paintings for centuries, and by this association a symbol for purity[8]

Some modern cultural historians have taken issue with this, most notably Kathryn Ready: ‘The claim … that it would have been likelier historically that Mary would have been embroidering than reading is not particularly convincing. A woman of Jesus’ day might very well have been illiterate or lacked the time to read. However, the artist's choice of embroidery as an alternative activity strikes as equally unlikely historically.’ [9]

Yet embroidery was already a well-established craft in the Middle East by 1000 BC,[10] and the Old Testament refers to ‘embroidered cloth’ in Ezekiel 16:10. Although home embroidery was seen as a pastime of bourgeois ladies in the popular imagination of Victorian England,[11] it was practiced by men and women of all classes in ancient times.[12] Moreover, one of the tasks of temple virgins was to embroider the priest’s ceremonial garments; thus it was not implausible that a young girl of Mary's time and modest background should be trained in this craft.[13]

Where Ready has a point is the presence of hardcover books (known as codices in the days of the Roman Empire) next to the angel, when books were usually published in the form of scrolls in the Middle East before 100 AD. The early Christians took to codices for reading religious texts, and strongly preferred them to the scrolls that were more commonly used in Ancient Rome. [14] It would seem that the angel, in addition to being a messenger from God, was also a time traveller, bringing back a stack of codices to symbolise the spread of Christianity.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there were the models for Anne and Mary; Rossetti’s own mother, Frances Rossetti, and his sister, Christina. It was Frances and Christina who would come to have one of the greatest influences on Rossetti’s early work by having him accompany them to church services organized by the ‘Oxford Movement’: a group of High Church theologians who wanted to bring back Medieval ritual forms of worship to the Anglican church, in response to the “plain” services of the more evangelical branches of Anglicanism.[15] Although Rossetti himself was not a religious man, he appreciated the spectacle of these services, and their emphasis on incorporating Roman Catholic rituals, including a greater emphasis on the veneration of the Virgin Mary than what was usually seen in most Protestant church services.[16] This fit in nicely with the stated goals of the PRB, who preferred to emulate the styles of the Medieval painters, particularly the quattrocento Italian painters.[17]

Rossetti’s painting, as well as those of other members of the PRB (the others exhibited their paintings at the Royal Academy), received favourable reviews by critics. One reviewer praised Girlhood of Mary Virgin for its ‘sincerity and earnestness’.[18] Rossetti sold the painting to the Marchioness of Bath for £80, and used the proceeds to finance visits to Paris and Flanders with fellow PRB member William Holman Hunt.[19] Before they set off, Rossetti had made drawings for the next scene in his planned triptych: the Annunciation [fig.2]. [20] He told his brother, William Rossetti: ‘The Virgin is to be in bed, but without any bedclothes on, in consideration of the hot climate; and the Angel Gabriel is to be presenting a lily to her.’ [21]

In his own book about Pre-Raphaelitism, Hunt remembered the two young artists, flush with the first sales of their exhibited paintings (Hunt’s painting sold for £100),[22] looking forward to seeing the treasures of the Louvre in person:

"[S]eeing what the artists of France (so much more favoured than the artists of England) were doing was, to two students eager to track the way leading to poetic art, of vital import. It was regarded by us with great seriousness, and some of Rossetti’s sonnets will prove how far he was moved by all examples of art that had the ring of the romantic age. He wrote one on Ingres’s ‘Roger and Angelica,’ another on a Mantegna, and rendered poetic homage to Leonardo, and to Giorgione."[23]

Although Hunt and Rossetti were impressed with the technical skills of French artists, particularly when it came to large-scale paintings, the PRB members felt the French school of that time fell short on what Hunt described as ‘moral beauty’. ‘There was nothing to make intelligible the axiom “art is love”,’ he wrote. ‘The startling antithesis was proclaimed that art is hatred, war, murder, lust, pride, and egoism.’[24]

A prime example of the sort of artwork Hunt and Rossetti took issue with was The Decadence of Rome by Thomas Couture, who won a prize for his work at the 1847 Salon de Paris.[25] It speaks volumes that Hunt does not even bother to name the painter or to mention the prize in his description:

"‘The Decadence of Rome’ had been just added to the Luxembourg. It was so highly rated that we had to regard it as a representative work; and how could we avoid deciding that this was done by a well-trained workman without the breath of life in his nostrils, by an artist saying with every touch, ‘You see what a clever fellow I am!’"[26]

There is no sign that either one of the English artists had any significant grasp of the recent political turmoil in France during their visit. Rossetti makes no mention of it at all in his letters describing their visit, and Hunt only mentions a few instances of ‘police surveillance’ during their stay.[27] It seems they were unaware that Couture’s prize-winning work was not just a historical painting, but a thinly veiled commentary on the moral corruption of France under the reign of Louis Philippe. By the time The Decadence of Rome had been exhibited, the French government had become notorious for the buying and selling of honours, bartering of titles for political and literary support, and nepotism when it came to political offices and privileges. [28] An American newspaper editor of the period estimated that out of the 240,000 electors of France (ie, the few citizens who still had the right to vote based on how much tax they paid, after universal male suffrage was suspended in 1815), 160,000 shared amongst themselves and their families no less than 628,000 offices, ‘held at the pleasure of Ministers, with emoluments amounting to nearly one hundred and ten million dollars [29] [sic: about $3,412,510,000 in today’s money].’

Thus, the allegory was immediately recognised by the judges of the 1847 salon, [30] but apparently lost on Rossetti and Hunt.

Hunt’s failure to credit Couture, however, may have served as a harbinger of things to come. In the end, the prize winner of 1847 would go down in history less as a renowned artist, and more as a teacher destined to be eclipsed by one of his students, Edouard Manet. [31]

The son of a judge of the Tribunal of the Seine, Manet came from exactly the sort of family that stood to reap the greatest benefits and to wield power thanks to the regime of the July Monarchy. Manet’s parents were determined to see that Edouard follow in the family’s footsteps. If it hadn't been for the 1848 revolution, the sweeping away of the old order and the subsequent restoration of universal male suffrage, they may well have succeeded. Instead Edouard, determined to become an artist, refused to go to law school. A compromise of sorts was reached between father and son in 1848, against the backdrop of violent revolution in the streets. Edouard Manet, aged 16, would enrol in the naval officers’ training school, which would not only free his parents from embarrassment, but also remove him from the fracas in Paris. [32]

As fate would have it, Manet failed the entrance exam. He was afforded another chance to take the exam, however, on the condition that he spend several months at sea as one of a few dozen novice-pilotins: candidates for the training school, who were on the ship to be drilled in the relevant academic subjects needed to pass the entrance exam. On 9 December 1848, at a cost of 500 francs, young Manet set sail on a merchant vessel bound for Rio de Janeiro, spending the voyage in relative comfort compared with the working sailors on board, and impressed the ship's captain with his artistic talent by painting the outer shells of cheese packaging that had become discoloured due to contact with the salty sea air. By the time the ship returned to France in 1849, Manet was not just a student but had become an art instructor on board: nevertheless, only nine of Manet’s fellow novice-pilotins passed the entrance exam that year, and he was not among them. [33]

By the year’s end Rossetti had returned to London to resume work on his Annunciation painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! [fig.3] Traditionally, artists who painted the Annunciation had followed the description of the event in Luke 1:26-38: [34]

[1599 Geneva Bible (GNV)] "....[T]he Angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin ... and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the Angel went in unto her, and said, Hail thou that art freely beloved: the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and thought what manner of salutation that should be. Then the Angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. For lo thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bear a son, and shalt call his Name Jesus…."

From today's perspective it is hard to imagine Rossetti’s depiction of the Annunciation as being at all controversial. As early as 1917, a director of religious education at Worcester Academy (a boarding school in Massachusetts dedicated to teaching the sons of the American Protestant ruling class) not only included Rossetti’s painting in a textbook devoted to studying the life of Christ through art, but declared Ecce Ancilla Domini! to be superior to medieval paintings of the Annunciation — just the sort of works the PRB admired so much:

[T]he picture is all Sincerity…. The real Mary was a young girl — a fact the Medieval painters quite forgot. She was not a queen nor the daughter of a merchant prince; she was a peasant. She did not live in a Venetian palace; she lived in a simple hut with the plainest of furnishings — at least the Scripture narrative implies all this. This idea Rossetti paints. The room is poor but neatly whitewashed; the bed is hardly more than a place to lie, but the linen is white. There is no chair or rug, no scroll of the prophets or prayer desk…. Not a syllable of this need be changed if you transport the painter to the Nazareth of the first century. [35]

American Protestants may have appreciated Rossetti’s more literal and historically accurate interpretation of Luke’s description of the Annunciation, but this view wasn't shared by the mainstream Anglican majority in England. At the time Ecce Ancilla Domini! went on display at the Portland Gallery in 1850, [36] there had emerged a groundswell of resentment against the re-establishment of Roman Catholic dioceses in England by Pius IX that same year. An editorial in The Times of London declared the establishment of these dioceses by papal fiat to be ‘one of the strangest pieces of mummery we ever remembered to have witnessed.’ [37]

Moreover, some of these new Roman Catholic priests in England were drawn from the leading lights of the Oxford Movement (as were many of their lay followers), most notably John Henry Newman, who had once described the Roman Catholic church as ‘polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous’ when he was an Anglican priest. [38] The PRB’s association with the Oxford Movement, combined with the associated artists’ paintings of religious themes, made it a target for critics who had once praised their work. [39] Charles Dickens famously slated Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais, warning his readers to prepare themselves ‘for the lowest depth of what is mean, odious, repulsive and revolting’, and described the young Jesus as a ‘blubbering, red-headed boy in a bedgown’ and Mary as ‘so horrible in her ugliness that she would stand out from the rest of her company as a monster at the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England’. [40] The Times of London chimed in, ‘It is, to speak plainly, revolting; it is disgusting’, and blasted the PRB as a whole as ‘juvenile artists…. Their faith seems to consist in an absolute contempt for perspective and the known laws of light and shade, an aversion to beauty in every shape, and a singular devotion to the minute accidents of their subjects … seeking out, every excess of sharpness and deformity.’ [41]

Even John Ruskin, proponent of the PRB’s artistic talents and preference for Italian quattrocento painting styles, felt it necessary to distance himself from their suspected theological leanings. ‘Let me state, in the first place, that I have no acquaintance with any of these artists, and very imperfect sympathy with them,’ he replied to the Times’ critic. ‘No one who has met with any of my writings will suspect me of daring to encourage them in their Romanist and Tractarian tendencies.’ [42]

Rossetti did not fare much better. It did not matter that he was not religious himself, or that everyone in his family stayed in the Anglican Church. [43] The suggestion of Mariolatry in Ecce Ancilla Domini! , particularly with its original Latin title (later changed to The Annunciation, in order to guard ‘against the imputation of Popery’), [44] was seen as evidence that the secretive nature of the PRB was part of a ‘Papist plot’ to undermine British society, an outlet for ‘Roman Catholic propaganda’. [45] The Atheneum criticised Rossetti and his painting as being ‘more with the presumption of a teacher than in the modesty of a hopeful and true aspiration after excellence’, [46] echoing Hunt’s criticism of Couture’s painting.

The treatment of Mary and Gabriel was seen as borderline indecent as well (although Rossetti ended up having Mary wear a sleeveless bedgown, instead of nothing at all per his original sketch). As for Gabriel, Rossetti painted him with flames at his feet, without wings or a halo, apparently naked beneath his garment. Also, this wingless angel held the lily with the stem end pointing toward Mary’s womb. [47] This, combined with the close proximity of Gabriel to Mary in a small room, with Mary crouching in her bed with a look of distress on her face, instead of the serene expression customarily assigned to her in earlier Annunciation paintings, was offensive to the art-buying public of Victorian London. [48]

Between the way the British press had turned on the PRB in general, and the lack of a buyer at the Portland Gallery for Ecce Ancilla Domini! in particular, Rossetti abandoned his plans for the triptych, vowed never to exhibit his work in public again, and the PRB disbanded soon thereafter. [49] The painting eventually sold for £50 as The Annunciation two years later. [50]

Five years later, the works of the PRB (or at least the works of Millais and Hunt) would be vindicated when they were exhibited at the 1855 Salon de Paris (part of the Exposition Universelle of that year, thus foreign works of art were exhibited as well). [51] It is worth noting, however, that the paintings exhibited this time were not only explicitly religious ones. As they were among the artists representing Britain in the exposition, Hunt and Millais had also painted scenes from Shakespeare and medieval English legends. [52] In his review of the exhibition, Theophile Gautier was among the many reviewers who were struck by the Pre-Raphaelites’ use of colour, praising Millais for his ability to study nature ‘with the soul and the eyes of an artist of the fifteenth century’.[53] Charles Baudelaire also sang the praises of the English artists, calling their works ‘very beautiful, singularly beautiful’. [54]

No one seemed more pleased to report back to the English public the enthusiastic reception of Pre-Raphaelite works in Paris than William Rossetti, attending the exhibition with his brother (whose paintings were not included, in keeping with his vow never to exhibit his works in public again). In his letter to the editors of The Crayon (23 August 1855), Rossetti noted the triumph of the Pre-Raphaelites in the manner of a prophet unappreciated in his own country:

"When London remains almost denuded of any visible Art manifestations at this season of the year, we continue represented in a compendious and comprehensive form at Paris…. The English artists appear to have made their way with the French public rapidly and conclusively … their originality is generally admitted — indeed with a cordiality which appears to me almost excessive: and the Pre-Raphaelite school especially seems likely not only to obtain barren suffrages, but to create a corresponding movement among the French." [55]

The Pre-Raphaelites weren’t the only artists praised by Baudelaire and Gauthier: Edouard Manet would soon enjoy their recognition as well. [56] At this time of this exhibition, however, Manet was still a student of Thomas Couture. The relationship between pupil and student was becoming an increasingly contentious one, with frequent clashes over what constituted Truth in Art. For Couture and the art establishment that held his work in such high esteem, the greatest works of art recalled classical antiquity, or at least classical antiquity as it existed in the minds of early 19th century France, populated with nudes striking heroic postures in ancient times, or at least in exotic settings far away from everyday life. Couture had no use for paintings of scenes from real life; what was the point, especially now that photography was here to record ‘real-life’? [57] That same year, Manet had painted a canvas that met with Couture’s disapproval. The other students in the atelier congratulated Manet on his painting and covered it with flowers. Couture shot back at Manet: ‘My friend, if you have any pretension to being the head of a school, go set it up elsewhere.’ [58]

Among Manet’s grievances with Couture’s method was his use of models who were expected to strike theatrical poses for the artist, poses that Manet considered unrealistic. When Manet asked any of these models to sit for him in a natural way, wearing modern clothing, most of them balked. [59] Only one of the models he met at Couture’s studio was willing to help him in his quest to paint modern life: Victorine Meurent. [60]

It is not known if Manet ever paid a visit to the 1855 Salon, but it is hard to imagine that he would have stayed away. Given the public acclaim for the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition it is hard not to see similarities in the use of colour and the placement of female figures in Millais’ Ophelia and Manet’s Dejeuner sur L’Herbe [fig.5], although that’s about as far as the resemblance goes. More obvious inspirations for Manet’s painting would include a painting then attributed to Giorgione (more recently, attributed to Titian), Le Concert Champêtre. [61] The same painting that inspired Rossetti to write a sonnet [62] would inspire Manet to paint something much more prosaic and considerably less elevated than the usual setting for a nude. In his Souvenirs, Antonin Proust recalls relaxing on the banks of the Seine with Manet, where the artist saw another inspiration:

"Some women were bathing. Manet’s eye was fixed on the flesh of the women leaving the water. ‘I’m told,’ he said to me, ‘that I must do a nude. All right, I’ll give them one. When we were in the studio, I copied Giorgione’s women, the women with musicians. It’s black, that painting. The ground has come through. I want to redo it and do it with a transparent atmosphere with people like those we see over there.‘" [63]

Manet was out to shock with Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, but not only by painting ordinary scenes from modern life like Courbet. He was out to mock Couture by deliberately taking revered examples of classical antiquity and putting them in all-too-modern settings. In addition to Le Concert Champêtre, which featured a nude woman relaxing on the grass, another nude by a well, and two fully clothed men playing lutes, Manet had his models (Victorine, his two brothers modelling for one of the youths, and his brother-in-law for the other one) replicated the poses of two satyrs and a nymph from Raimondo’s engraving after Raphael’s Judgement of Paris: but with a naked Victorine assuming the pose of the nymph, and the two satyrs dressed in the clothing of contemporary students.[64] The look on Victorine’s face suggests she was all too eager to join in the mockery of Couture and his ideals, after years of posing for him. This mockery was found to be more offensive than clever by a number of critics, among them Philip Gilbert Hamerton of the Fine Arts Quarterly Review: ‘Giorgione had conceived the happy idea of a fête champêtre in which although the gentlemen were dressed, the ladies were not. Now some wretched Frenchman has translated this into modern French realism, on a much larger scale, and with the horrible modern French costume instead of the graceful old Venetian one.’ [65]

In 1863, Manet’s painting was rejected by the jury of the Salon de Paris, a few years after they had accepted other paintings of his. [66] The jury’s decision put him in good company that year, as two-thirds of submitted paintings had also been rejected. Among the rejected paintings were works by Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Pisarro and Whistler. Napoleon III had ordered that the rejected artists be allowed to exhibit their paintings in a ‘Salon des Refusés’, adjacent to the official Salon: [67] This may have been a pre-emptive strike against the possibility of an exhibition staged by the artists themselves; when the 1855 Exhibition Universelle rejected Courbet's 'manifesto painting The Artist’s Studio, the artist withdrew the ten paintings from the exhibition and set up his own ‘Pavilion of Realism’ [68]

The official reason, however, was that ‘His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints [from the rejected artists and their supporters], has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.’ [69]

Even Courbet, however, had not received such a hostile reception for any of his paintings at the official Salon as the one Manet received for Dejeuner sur L’Herbe at the Salon des Refusés. Not even for his own Les Demoiselles des Bordes de la Seine [fig.6], which featured two women relaxing on the ground, with one of them wearing what looked like undergarments to visitors at the 1857 Salon, which suggested the wearer was a prostitute exhausted after plying her trade. [70] (A man’s hat in a boat on the shore suggested this was the case.) [71] On the grounds of artistic skill alone, Manet was criticised for his use of colour without gradation, without use of light and shadow, and rendering the characters in his painting in a flat, two-dimensional style; [72] criticisms all too familiar to the Pre-Raphaelites, who were taken to task by one reviewer for seeking ‘to make men and women like artfully-shaped and coloured pancakes’. [73]

Finally, there was the subject matter. Theodore Duret neatly captures what the jury was expecting from the artists who wanted to have their works accepted in Manet and the Impressionists :

"Homage was paid to the ‘ideal’. High art was conceived as appertaining to a certain elevated sphere, which embraced historical and religious painting, and the representation of classical antiquity and mythology. The interests of artists, critics, and public were confined exclusively to this form of art, which was considered pure and dignified…. This grand art [sic] had become the object of a national cult. It was the glory of France to perpetuate it." [74]

Manet’s work was not a vision of a scene from ancient times, or of a far-off land, but one too close to home. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Bois de Boulogne had become a notorious meeting ground for prostitutes and their clients. Parisian parks in general had become among the favourite places for prostitutes to ply their trade after Baron Haussmann's plans for remaking the city took effect. Not only were the slums cleared (where so many of the old brothels had been located), but there was also the added effect of real estate prices rising dramatically in the central Paris neighbourhoods left standing, which further hampered the efforts of prostitutes to find places where they could work indoors. [75] In Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet, Otto Friedrich notes that the number of maisons de tolerance operating in Paris shrank by nearly 30% during the reign of Napoleon III. At the same time, the numbers of women engaging in sex work had grown exponentially: one police officer estimated that the number of prostitutes registered with the police (3991 by 1878) comprised less than 5 percent of all the women engaging in commercial sex in Paris. The end result was that prostitutes and their clients were far more likely to conduct their transactions in public view. [76] ‘They are everywhere,’ wrote one police officer, ‘Late into the night, they circulate in great numbers on the most beautiful boulevards, to the great scandal of the public, which takes them for registered prostitutes violating the regulations and hence is astonished at the inaction of the police in their regard.’ [77]

And so, visitors came in the thousands each day to visit the state-sanctioned Salon des Refuses. [78] Emile Zola, an early supporter of Manet, mocked the attendees who were shocked by Manet’s painting. ‘Good God! What indecency: a woman without the slightest covering between two clothed men!’ he wrote in his analysis of Manet and his work. ‘In the Louvre there are more than 50 paintings in which are found mixes of persons clothed and nude. But no one goes to the Louvre to be scandalized.’ [79]

As scandalous and disparaged as Manet’s work may have been, there was another controversial painting in the exhibition that captured the attention of viewers: Symphony in White No. 1 (aka The Woman in White) by James McNeill Whistler [fig.7]. [80] The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is unmistakable here: the liberal use of white in the background, combined with the model’s white dress recalls Rossetti’s own Ecce Ancilla Domini!, [81] with several critics noting that the lily in the model’s hand was an allusion to purity and innocence, if not the Virgin Mary. [82] There is some debate over whether Whistler ever saw Ecce Ancilla Domini! before he finished his painting, as Rossetti’s painting was sold to a buyer in Ireland. [83] Indeed, Whistler had not even met Rossetti until 1862, after his painting was first exhibited in London, although he became fast friends with Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites during his years in London, as he did with Manet and other French artists when he lived in Paris. [84]

Critics in Paris took issue with the depiction of a woman wearing a white house dress (the sort only worn in the privacy of the home), as well as the wolfskin rug the model was standing on, with scattered flowers that were read as a symbol of defloration. [85] Audiences in London, where the painting was first exhibited (at the Berners Street Gallery,[86] after having been rejected by the Royal Academy, whose judges had the same criteria for paintings as their French counterparts), were more likely to have Wilkie Collins’ bestseller The Woman in White in mind when looking at the painting, expecting to see a narrative painting depicting one of the many dramatic scenes from the novel, instead of a full-length portrait. The Atheneum described the painting as “striking but incomplete”: [87]

"It is one of the most incomplete paintings we have ever met with. A woman in a quaint morning dress of white, with her hair about her shoulders, stands alone in the background of nothing in particular. But for the rich vigour of the textures, we might conceive this to be some old portrait by Zucchero, or a pupil of his, practicing in a provincial town." [88]

Whistler took exception to both the French and the British interpretations of his work, and insisted there were no allegories intended in his painting: [89]

"May I beg to correct an erroneous impression likely to be confirmed by a paragraph in your last number? The Proprietors of the Berners Street Gallery have, without my sanction, called my picture 'The Woman in White.' I had no intention whatever of illustrating Mr Wilkie Collins’s novel; it so happens, indeed, that I have never read it. My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white, standing in front of the white curtain." [90]

Given that Collins’ novel was so popular that it had inspired a stage adaptation, a waltz and even a perfume, Whistler’s protest seems disingenuous, especially since he himself referred to his painting as The Woman in White to his friends while he was working on it. [91] In yet another letter to the Atheneum on the subject, Frederick Buckstone, secretary of the Berners Street Gallery, said Whistler "was well aware of his picture being advertised as 'The Woman in White'.... There was no intention to mislead the public by the supposition that it referred to the heroine of Mr Wilkie Collins’s novel."[92]

French critics, who did not share the same preconceptions of their British counterparts about what a ‘woman in white’ should look like, interpreted the painting as depicting something more sinister: a fallen woman. [93] Even this reaction, however, as well as the resulting publicity in Paris, was preferable to being damned with faint praise in London.

But if British and French audiences found Whistler’s work left something to be desired, the artists of those countries took a different view. In Paris, the critic Paul Mantz declared the painting to be a ‘symphony in white’; [94] a title Whistler would use from then on to describe this and future ‘white paintings’ of his. [95] Henri Fantin-Latour, one of Whistler’s friends and colleagues in Paris, wrote, ‘Baudelaire finds it charming . . . . Legros, Manet, Bracquemond, de Balleroy and myself; we all think it's admirable.’ Even Courbet was impressed, according to Fantin-Latour: ‘[he] calls your picture an apparition, with a spiritual content (this annoys him); he says it’s good.’ [96]

In London, Whistler’s painting won praise from Millais, who compared his work to Titian, [97] and Rossetti became friends with Whistler after the painting was first exhibited. [98] If Whistler was unaware of Rossetti’s own painting of a woman wearing white clothing in a white room before the two met, he would have been sure to find out about it during the course of their friendship. Rossetti himself called Ecce Ancilla Domini! ‘the ancestor of all the white pictures which have since become so numerous’. [99] The friendships and reputation that Whistler cultivated in the artistic communities of London and Paris would help set the stage for Manet’s next succés de scandale: Olympia [fig.8].

As is generally known, the primary inspiration for Olympia was another nude of the classical type that the judges of the Salon preferred: Titian’s Venus of Urbino. An early sketch of Manet’s titled Woman and Cat [fig.9] reveals a curvaceous woman petting a black cat snuggled up next to her. The model in Manet’s sketch has the same inviting smile as Titian’s model. In Theodore Duret’s book Histoire de Edouard Manet et Ses Oeuvres, there is a reproduction of the sketch captioned ‘Recherche Pour L’Olympia’. [100] So how did this figure go from being curvaceous and relaxed, to ‘that of a spare young woman, with somewhat bony limbs and angular shoulders,’ [101] a figure more infuriating than alluring to viewers at the 1865 Salon, even more so than Dejeuner sur L’Herbe was two years ago?

By the time Manet started work on his preliminary sketches for Olympia, his father had died from complications resulting from tertiary syphilis. [102] Manet had already captured the vacant stare of his father’s deterioration in his Monsieur et Madame Auguste Manet [fig.10], which was accepted by the official Salon in 1861. [103] Moreover, it is widely believed that Manet himself contracted syphilis when he was a novice-pilotin in Brazil,[104] although some biographers suggest this theory is tinged with the xenophobia often associated with deadly diseases. It has long been theorized that syphilis was brought to Europe from the Americas, while other theories state that the disease originated in Europe. [105] As the time from infection to presentation of symptoms of tertiary syphilis can take up to 10 years, [106] Manet himself must have known by this point that he was destined to die the same way his father did. In desperation, he also sought out ‘specious remedies’, according to Duret, who added that these quack cures may have further shortened his life. [107] There is a considerable resemblance between the expressions on the faces of Manet’s father and Olympia, as well as the postures of Manet’s mother and the maid, carrying a basket of embroidery yarn and a bouquet, respectively.

Syphilis was considered a fashionable disease in those days among Manet’s peers. Flaubert, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec: all of them caught it and some of them reveled in it. [108] ‘I’ve got the pox’, Maupassant is said to have crowed. ‘At last, the real thing!’ [109] In 1862, Manet’s friend and champion Baudelaire documented a seizure linked to syphilis: ‘I felt pass over me the wings of madness.’ [110] Sexually transmitted disease was a frequent subject in French literature of the period, from Balzac’s Cousin Bette, in which a woman contracts it from her Brazilian lover (another instance of associating the disease with foreigners) and passing it on to her husband, to Le Lit 29, where a prostitute wreaks vengeance by infecting Prussian soldiers.[111] By the end of the nineteenth century, some health experts estimated that infection rates among the population of Paris were as high as 20 percent. [112]

Manet’s ambitions for Olympia went beyond jury acceptance at the Salon de Paris. Through his friendship with Whistler, he had hoped to secure the approval of Rossetti, in the hopes of getting his sponsorship to exhibit at the Royal Academy. The choice of Rossetti seems peculiar, as he himself had never exhibited at the Royal Academy, while other friends of Whistler had. [113]

In looking at both Olympia and Ecce Ancilla Domini!, one can't help but notice a similarity between the placement of the models in each piece; one figure in bed, the other standing next to the bed and holding a floral tribute. Other art critics and historians have noted similarities between the composition of Olympia and other paintings of the Annunciation that Manet may have seen on his travels in Italy. [114] There has been much debate over the black cat in Olympia and what, if anything, it is meant to symbolise (some say the cat is a reference to female genitalia, [115] while others claim it is supposed to represent Manet himself, as he liked to include a cat in several of his paintings). [116] Yet paintings of the Annunciation also often included cats, such as the ones that appeared in the Annunciation paintings Manet saw on his tour of Italy, as well as the ones in the Flemish Annunciation paintings Rossetti and Hunt may have seen on their aforementioned trip. [117]

Cats in Annunciation paintings were usually seen as symbols of domesticity, often painted with serene expressions on their faces. [118] A notable exception is the cat in Lorenzo Lotto’s Annunciation, a dark figure running away in terror. Is the cat supposed to be ‘the devil’s favourite animal’, as Pope Innocent VIII declared in 1484; a creature opposed to Gabriel’s message? Or was the cat simply startled, echoing the reaction of Mary, according to the interpretation used by Rossetti himself for his own Annunciation painting? [119]

In any case, Rossetti himself took a dim view of Manet’s attempts to win his favour with Olympia. [120] Any knowledge Manet may have had of Ecce Ancilla Domini! could only have been secondhand, mainly through his friend Whistler. In the same way that Whistler’s Woman in White, a secular painting described by its creator as ‘art for art’s sake’, was interpreted by some French viewers as a study of a recently deflowered woman based solely on the presence of a model wearing a white dress and holding a lily, with scattered flowers and a wolfskin rug on the floor [121] (an interpretation not shared by critics in London), what would these same viewers have had to say about Ecce Ancilla Domini! if that painting had been exhibited in Paris? What, for that matter, would have gone through Manet’s head if Whistler had told him about what he heard from Rossetti about Ecce Ancilla Domini! and its reception in London?

When Rossetti returned to Paris in November 1864, his reputation as one of the founders of the PRB was well established among the new crop of French painters. His guide was Fantin-Latour, who was introduced to Rossetti in London by Whistler, and had hoped to induce Rossetti to sit for Hommage a Delacroix, a group painting where the sitters included Manet, Whistler, Baudelaire and Fantin-Latour himself. [122]

Although Rossetti was a fellow admirer of Delacroix, [123] his admiration did not extend to more recent French painters. ‘The new French school is simple putrescence and decomposition,’ he wrote in a letter to his mother. ‘There is a man named Manet … whose pictures are for the most part mere scrawls, and who seems to be one of the lights of the school. Courbet, the head of it, is not much better.’ [124] After Rossetti met Manet in his studio and saw Olympia, he declared the man who sought his sponsorship for exhibitions in London as ‘a French idiot … who certainly must be the greatest and most conceited ass who ever lived’ in a letter to Jane Morris. [125]

If Dante Gabriel Rossetti was hesitant to describe Olympia in his writings, his brother William was all too willing to oblige, pronouncing the painting to be ‘a most extreme absurdity,’ in his diary. [126] The French critics had even worse things to say, reminiscent of Dickens’ scathing comments about Millais and his work: ‘A female gorilla, a rubber grotesque.’ ‘People crowd around Manet’s Olympia as though they were at the morgue.’ ‘A corpse displayed in the morgue … dead of yellow fever and already arrived at an advanced state of decomposition.’ ‘Art sunk so low doesn't even deserve reproach.’[127]

The negative reaction to Olympia from Salon visitors who fancied themselves as art-world insiders paled in comparison to the reaction from those who didn't. Leading the charge was Empress Eugenie, who made no secret of her disdain for Olympia at the opening of the 1865 Salon: she struck the painting with her fan. [128] More vicious physical attacks with umbrellas and walking sticks would come: [129] the Marquis de Chennevières deployed guards to protect the painting at first, then moved the painting closer to the ceiling, beyond the reach of angry mobs. [130] As a result, according to one critic, ‘you scarcely knew whether you were looking at a parcel of nude flesh or a bundle of laundry.’ [131]

One reason for the violent reaction of the viewers, noted Duret, had to do with the change in the numbers and demographics of the visitors to the Salon:

"Hitherto painting had addressed itself exclusively to a narrow circle composed of artists, men of letters, connoisseurs and society people…. But from 1863 onwards, the Salons were held annually ... the number of works exhibited increased enormously. Hence the larger public, the whole outside world in fact, came into direct contact with artists, and began to sit in judgment on them. Now the people as a whole, in its new capacity of art critic, showed itself more attached to convention and tradition, more hostile to novelty, less capable of correcting former errors of judgment, than the limited world which had hitherto been the sole arbiter on matters of art. And Manet, the first great painter of original ideas, who had appeared after the crowds had begun to flock to the Salons, had to face a contemptuous and abusive opposition, more lasting and violent than was known to any of his forerunners in the pioneer work of art." [132]

It is worth considering what sort of artwork the ‘larger public’ Duret referred to had been regularly exposed to prior to 1863. Under the Bourbon restoration, the Catholic church regained its pre-revolutionary status as the state religion in France. With the church's restoration came a renewed religiosity among royalists, as well as an attendant rise in Marian devotion, complete with reported sightings of the Virgin commemorated in paintings and sculpture. [133] Depictions of the Annunciation were commonplace in Catholic churches: [134] thus the churchgoing public were likely to be so familiar with the visual vocabulary of devotional paintings that any hint of religious symbolism in a nominally secular work, however unintentional (as in Whistler’s painting), was likely to cause consternation. In both Manet’s and Rossetti’s paintings, a flower-bearing messenger is looking towards an unsmiling young woman lying in bed, directing the viewer to do the same. [135] Indeed, if Olympia and Ecce Ancilla Domini! were aligned with the beds parallel to each other and the pillows pointing north, the first would look like a crude mirror image of the second.

If viewers at the 1865 Salon were disgusted at the sight of a white whore in the place of the Virgin Mary, they must have been incandescent with rage at the sight of a black maid in the place of the Angel Gabriel. Art critics of the day, followed by art historians for several decades, paid short shrift to Olympia’s black maid, reducing her to one of Olympia’s accessories if she was mentioned at all.[136] In fact, a good deal of the art criticism of the day echoed William Rossetti's opinion, wondering how a woman in Olympia's state of decay could ever earn enough money to acquire the trimmings and trappings of what Alexandre Parent-Duchatelet called ‘superior-class’ prostitutes in his study on the subject. [137] ‘What is this Odalisque with a yellow stomach, a base model picked up I know not where, who represents Olympia?’ wrote one critic, ’Olympia? What Olympia?’ [138] Another critic wrote, ‘Her look has the sourness of someone prematurely aged, her face the disturbing perfume of a fleur du mal, her body fatigued, corrupted.’ [139]

Conversely, editorial cartoonists, historically the more reliable indicators of public sentiment, made a point of turning Olympia’s maid into a grotesque, racist caricature, [140] instead of the ‘mild black messenger’ of Zacharie Astruc’s poem, which accompanied the painting. [141] A notable exception is Honore Daumier’s cartoon poking fun at the reaction of the public with the following caption: ‘Why the devil is that big red woman in chemise called Olympia?’ ‘Perhaps it’s the name of the cat.’ [142]

And the message was certainly not what the attendees wanted to hear. Rossetti faced harsh criticism in London for his sincere attempts to strive for historical and geographical accuracy in his depiction of the Annunciation. Manet, on the other hand, continued his practice of upending conventional scenes from fine art by resetting them in Second Empire Paris. If his mockery of classical poses from the Renaissance paintings he copied at Couture’s studio in Dejeuner sur L'Herbe was met with derision from the public, his upending of the popular nineteenth century Orientalist trope of a white woman attended to by a black slave in native dress (or undress, as was often the case) in a far-off land in Olympia was met with outright fury as well,[143] with the religious undertones further emphasised by the accompanying painting by Manet at the 1865 Salon, Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers. [144]

Curator Denise Murrell, whose 2013 dissertation laid the groundwork for the Musee d’Orsay’s 2019 exhibit Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse, notes that the figure of the maid was a representation of the changing racial composition of the Parisian working class: [145]

"While Titian's maid is proportionately much smaller than the courtesan, Manet's maid assumes a spatial dimension nearly equivalent to that of the prostitute…. The greater equivalence between the two figures in Olympia sets up a counterbalancing relationship between them in purely formal terms—the maid's blackness is heightened by the prostitute's whiteness, and vice versa—with the effect, for many critics, of transferring a racially charged connotation of uncleanliness and illicit sexuality from the black maid to the white prostitute." [146]

By moving the scene to a Paris brothel, with the flower-bearing servant standing upright and wearing European dress next to a reclining nude, one with apparent signs of decay that belied the accessories of a monied courtesan, Manet had caused public outrage. For Olympia depicted a different sort of annunciation; a message of impending death instead of everlasting life. [147]

Special thanks to Gail Reid MD MSCTS, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Loyola University School of Medicine, for reviewing this manuscript.

Captions for Illustrations


Dante Gabriel Rossetti Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848 9 Tate Photo © Tate


Dante Gabriel Rossetti Ecce Ancilla Domini - Female Nude - Study for The Virgin 1849 Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery Photo © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery


Thomas Couture The Decadence of Rome 1847 Musée d'Orsay Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski


Dante Gabriel Rossetti Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) 1849 50 Tate Photo © Tate


Edouard Manet Dejeuner sur L’Herbe 1863 Musée d'Orsay Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski


Gustave Courbet Les Demoiselles des Bordes de la Seine 1857 Petit Palais - City of Paris' Museum of Fine Arts Photo ©Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet


James McNeill Whistler Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl 1862 National Gallery of Art (USA) Photo © National Gallery of Art (USA)


Edouard Manet Olympia 1863 Musée d'Orsay Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski


Edouard Manet Femme nue, étendue sur un lit, la femme au chat 1862-1863 Musée d'Orsay, conservé au Musée du Louvre Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot


Edouard Manet Monsieur et Madame Auguste Manet 1860 Musée d'Orsay Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

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