Artists of 19th Century France gradually started to shift the way they portrayed women--whether dressed or undressed.  Whereas in the early 19th Century women were portrayed as symbols in an allegorical environment, increasingly the Impressionists strove to portray women in a more realistic way.  They covered the condition of women in a wide range of social strata, both in their private and public lives.

The Nude

Edouard Manet
Le Dejeuner sur
l'herbe, 1863
This famous painting from Manet, shown at the Salon of 1865, along with his Olympia,shown at the same time, caused great outrage at that exhibition. 

What was so disturbing to viewers and critics?

Nudes had been fashionable at the Salon for several decades, including those of Ingres, Cabanel, and Gerome, well established artists. So why such a furor?

The Salon artists had depicted "perfect porcelain" skinned nudes with eye-catching, cellulite-free bodies, as symbols in allegorical settings (e.g. Venuses, or mistresses to famous kings).

Manet refers back to, and breaks with, tradition in this painting.   Painters such as Titian in Concert in the Country (1538) and Giorgione's Pastoral Symphony (1508) had placed nudes in the midst of dressed musicians.  However, Manet takes reality further by placing a real woman with abundant flesh (in this case Victorine Meurent) staring directly at the viewer.  This is not meant to be an allegorical setting, although the cornucopia of the picnic basket in the foreground is probably suggesting abundance and fertility.  This is a scene in the French countryside, with clothed artists in close intimacy with their model.

Dominique Ingres
Grande Odalisque, 1814
Ingres' Grande Odalisque, referring back to the tradition of Moorish harems (quite fashionable in Paris at the time), did not cause as much astonishment in the Salon, when it was shown earlier in the 19th Century, as did Manet's Olympia..  Although they are both blatantly nudes in full erotic poses, Ingres' nude refers back to an allegorical setting of exotic lands.  Ingres' nude slyly turns her head in profile but does not stare at us petulantly the way Olympia does.  Ingres' nude could be beckoning the viewer seductively, whereas Olympia cannot be seduced by the flowers offered her by her admirer. Olympia refers to Titian's Venus d'Urbino(1538), but her much more upright stance is haughtily staring at us. The model depicted in Olympia was Victorine Meurent--who was well known in the demimonde of artists.  Thus this identifiable nude was no longer a symbol, but a well-known French woman, defiant and nude.  Today we would also ask--why is the maid ignored by the naked woman and by the painter (her face can hardly be discerned in the dark background)? The scandal at the Salon was over the French daring nude, not the fact that this scene depicted racial injustice.

Edouard Manet
Olympia, 1863