Titian and Manet: possession and ownership in painting the female nude

John Elderfield
Jul 16, 2013 2:31PM

In Venice this June, the greatest wall of paintings was not in the Biennale, or even in the Accademia, but in the Palazzo Ducale; and it contained just two works of art. These were Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and Manet’s Olympia (1863), shown in a wonderful exhibition on Manet’s Italian sources, “Manet. Return to Venice”. Titian’s painting had been profoundly influential upon Manet’s, yet these two pinnacles in the history of European pictorial art had never previously been shown together; and it is extremely unlikely that they will ever be seen together again.

Titian’s painting is the most provocative of all his nudes, and yet the subject’s body is not on offer to all—her face telling us that she is an individual who has already offered herself to another individual; and her eyes that she is serenely indifferent to anyone else. The servants busy in the background tell us not only that a marriage bed has been prepared, but also—in their turning away from the subject’s body; one looking down into the darkness of the wedding chest—that our knowing precisely what is being prepared should turn our thoughts away from any covetousness of our own. Titian shows a woman to be desired, but not a woman to provoke desire; a woman whose own desiring is to be owned as well as possessed, since that is what marriage required, but not a woman for whom either ownership or possession would compromise her autonomy or self-possession.

These qualities of autonomy and self-possession in sensual display were what attracted Manet. He was painting not an actual Venetian bride but an imagined Parisian prostitute, yet the depictive challenge was not so very different. He shows the body not simply as an object for sale, but also as a self-possessed subject available on her own terms. The detached serenity of Titian’s presentation would not, of course, be credible for a painting of a prostitute; something harder and more confrontational was called for. The hand on the thigh is so very different to that of Titian’s nude, a hand that will move only to take money. The dog in the Titian, symbolic of fidelity, has been replaced by a black cat, a crude allusion to female sexuality; and, in place of Titian’s busying, background servants, a black maid has brought in a client’s flowers perhaps at the very moment that the client himself has entered the room. In response to his—and our—entrance, Olympia’s gaze neither offers nor withholds herself; it simply refuses to be expressive, telling us that the sale of the property may bring possession but never ownership. A lot has changed in the more than three hundred years between 1538 and 1863. Nonetheless, the same terms—possession and ownership—are still in play.

John Elderfield