Since I moved to DC in August of 2008, people here consistently ask me about the humidity in NC, my home state. I always laugh and tell them it's humid in NC and I'm pretty sure DC has nothing on it. I lied. The people here know what they are talking about. Maybe it's because I walk more here than I ever did in NC, or that my apartment isn't air conditioned, but I'm pretty sure the humidity here is way worse than any of the 23 summers I spent in NC.
But all of this heat and summery weather has me thinking about last summer. I didn't experience much of the DC summer as I hopped from Newport, RI to Limoges, France, to Anchorage, AK. As I walked down 2nd st. SE here in DC the other day I was reminded of Paris. The humidity, the houses, the leafy trees, they all reminded me of walking down leafy streets with amazing houses. To be clear, Paris apartments are much cooler than DC rowhouses. In being transported back and dreaming of one day going to Paris where my trip isn't a huge whirlwind of visiting every tourist hot-spot in 3 days, I thought of my favorite painting.
Olympia by Edouard Manet. It's in the Musee D'Orsay and, sadly, I didn't get to see it when I was there. It's on the list of reasons why I need to go back. This is such a risque painting. It was introduced to me in my senior year of high school by my very hyper-sexualized AP English teacher. Oh, the things I learned that year that probably didn't need to. I finished an assignment early and Mrs. Graham (aforementioned teacher) had a book of 100 important paintings or some such thing and gave it to me to entertain myself while everyone else finished what they were doing. She told me I would have to tell her what my favorite painting was at the end. It was Olympia. It was sexy, amazing, and I found it incredibly intriguing.
Fast forward 4 years to my senior year of college as an art history major. We're studying Impressionism and Manet gets a nice mention. We learn all about Olympia and her basis in historic paintings of women. The great thing about Olympia is that Manet acknowledges that history, but throws it away at the same time. (Is he a Postmodernist?) Olympia is based on a variety of paintings featuring reclining nudes, but is most often associated with Titian's Venus of Urbino. Sure, they're both nude, but the Venus is much more demure than Olympia.
Venus is blonde (angelic!); Olympia is brunette (earthy, base, evil!). Venus has handmaids in the background, preparing her clothes; Olympia's maid brings flowers (presumably from a customer/suitor) rather than clothes, further suggesting to us that she has no intention of getting dressed any time soon. Venus casts her gaze to the side; Olympia looks straight into our eyes. But my favorite changed symbol telling us that Olympia is no demure, virginal Venus: Venus has a small dog, Olympia has a black cat. Much like the blonde/brunette symbolism, dogs represent kindness and friendliness. Having a small dog is the sign of a well-bred lady. A black cat matches the dark hair as cats are associated with evil, darkness, and ill-breeding.
Maybe it's because I'm a brunette. Or maybe because I just like how forthright Olympia is. But whatever the reason, this painting still intrigues, excites, and amazes me. Even the Nocturne Radio doesn't amaze me like this does. Here's hoping for a return to Paris to see it in person!