Voyeurism & the Mise-en-scène: The Dynamics of Gender in Depictions of the Reclining Female Figure as a Context for Understanding Manet’s Olympia

“If it is well drawn there is pleasure to be gained in its very structure which has nothing to do with its subject…A well drawn figure fills you with a pleasure far removed from the subject matter.  Whether voluptuous or frightening, the charm of such a figure lies simply in the curve which it cuts in space”.                                                                                              —  Baudelaire

If Baudelaire’s coy approach to the depiction of erotic subjects in art was true, it did little to end the debate on the appropriateness of such subject matter in the public venue. Since at least as far back as the time of the Roman Republic, Western Civilization has wrestled with the dilemma of weighing the relative values of the desire to replicate nature in art (including its erotic aspects) and the perceived threat that the display of such art represents to public morality. Even Michaelangelo’s Sistine chapel offended the contemporary political correctness of Renaissance Rome. Historically such defenders of public decency have included Stoic Roman senators, Roman Catholic zealots like Savanarolla, and Reformation Puritans. This later group’s modern descendants sometimes referred to as Protestant Fundamentalist or the Religious Right, get the majority of play in the media for perpetuating this debate in what many consider to be a post-Christian secular era. But despite the best efforts of Jerry Fallwell and his colleagues, the ideas of this group have had relatively little impact on the content of either popular or fine art produced in the last thirty years. Very few artists, musicians and writers come out of this conservative subculture and fewer still critics, academicians and intellectuals operating at the level of the official public dialogue.

Ironically, the group that is most responsible for keeping this issue at the forefront of “serious” discussion is generally at loggerheads with these traditionalists. That group is the Feminists. They argue that it is not the impulse to libidinous thought and thus impetus to libidinous action, that creates the threat to public morality, but rather, that images of women depicted by men objectify and thus dehumanize women, and that as a result such art acts as propaganda for the male patriarchy thus institutionalizing the degradation and exploitation of women. As Rosalind Kraus notes they espouse the complaint that, in the patriarchal culture, woman is nothing but “image.”

Feminists have advocated the theory of the Male Gaze as the mechanism by which the female subjects of art of have been historically objectified. According to this theory, the very act of gazing at the female subject by the male artist (and by implication the viewer as well) intrinsically produces a voyeuristic phenomenon that objectifies and thus dehumanizes the female subject and by implication all of female society.

On the surface this theory has some obvious merits. Indeed most depictions of women throughout time have been rendered by men, and it is reasonable to assume that this fact alone would produce some recognizable gender bias in the depiction of the female subject. When one calls to mind images of women in art, it is likely that the images that one thinks of are either nudes or reclining figures or both. Presuming the heterosexuality of the male artists, one is not surprised to find this predilection for the erotic female form.

A closer examination of the subject, however, reveals that this is not the whole story and that the theory of a single unitary Male Gaze presumably held by all males at all times is seriously flawed. Such a theory falls prey to both intentional and affective fallacies as well as the inherent problems of such over-general arguments. While certainly the patriarchy has historically created myths to contextualize rather narrow understandings of the idea of femininity (Venus, Athena, Ariadne etc.) it is my contention that Feminists have also created an equally arbitrary mythic structure for the understanding of feminine identity in art. In this context I use the term myth has Roland Barthes meant, “the superimposition of a universalizing generalization onto a specific, limited bit of representation as its second-order meaning.” Barthes saw the victims of myth as the petite bourgeois consumers of culture, the ones he thought most susceptible to advertising, and least attentive to history.3

The Feminist interpretations of such art frequently ignore the contributions of women to the creation of such works both in relation to their role as patrons and as models. It is my intention to examine the history of the depiction of the reclining female figure to demonstrate that while there is a widespread predilection for a heterosexual male gender based gaze, that it is not a simple, universal phenomenon, nor is it an exclusively male dominated expression of ideal feminine beauty. Indeed, it is my contention that it is to some extent the very empowerment of women in the process of creating these works that makes their sexual imagery controversial. In an effort to articulate this phenomenon, I will analyze the production of three categories of the reclining female figure, the Non-Erotic Mise en Scene, the Voyeurist Image, and the Erotic Mise-en-scène and try to demonstrate how this mechanism of analysis can illuminate our understanding of why Manet’s Olympia has become the archetypal focus for all such discussions of the propriety of the depiction of the female figure.

The Non-erotic Mise-en-scène

Etruscan sarcophagus, "Lartie Scianti."

Etruscan sarcophagus, “Lartie Scianti.”

The term mise-en-scène is derived from the French and originated in the theater where it means “to be put into a scene.” In the context of the depiction of the reclining female figure, it refers to the perception of the viewer that their presence in the scene they are viewing is implied by the structure of the work of art itself. It is a process in which the artists breaks down the invisible barrier between the viewer and the thing viewed in order to enhance the spectator’s sense of suspended disbelief. The artist uses various technical devices to accomplish this including scale, perspective and the angle at which the viewer approaches the subject. By careful choice of setting or of auxiliary objects included in the composition, the artist may offer the viewer clues that may encourage this suspended disbelief. One of the most effective devices is the way in which the artist utilizes the angle of the returned gaze of the subject, as well as it’s expression, to convey a sense that the subject is not only aware of, but also engaged with, the viewer. While the mise-en-scène is quite effective at producing a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the subject of the work of art, this sense of engagement with the subject offers a sometimes problematical relationship between the viewer and the work.

The antecedents for the non-erotic mise-en-scène go back to the very roots of Western civilization. James Wellard observes that, “In the size and splendor of the Etruscan painted sarcophagus of the noblewoman called Lartie Scianti, created in Northern Italy 5th –6th century B. C., we see the respect shown to women in Etruscan society.” While it is appropriate to note that this is the sarcophagus of a noble woman, and as such, is not necessarily representative of the status of women as a whole in Etruscan society, it is indicative that at least among the aristocracy, the disposition of the remains of the deceased was treated with great respect regardless of gender. This figure is depicted reclining on one arm is set in a courtly environment. If understood in an Etruscan cultural context, the figure returns the viewer’s gaze, but her expression is welcoming rather than seductive. She recalls depictions of figures on Classical Greek grave stele that show the deceased shaking hands with their loved ones as a final parting gesture. It is her gaze that engages the viewer’s focus rather than the contour of her form, which is more concealed than revealed by her clinging garment. She is not a personification of Venus, but instead is a portrait of a typical Etruscan matron of the period.

Despite the fact that this sarcophagus was presumable crafted by a man, his depiction of the reclining female form lacks most of the attributes that are typically associated with the more pernicious aspects of the Male Gaze. She is neither voyeurized nor exoticized, nor is she particularly objectified as a vehicle of male erotic fantasy. She is a powerful, distinguished, self-possessed woman of substance that is symbolically bidding farewell to those she has left behind. It is not presumptuous to believe that she would have fully consented to such an ennobling depiction.

Jacques-Louis David, "Madame Recamier."

Jacques-Louis David, “Madame Recamier.”

In Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of Madame Recamier painted in 1800, the artist again creates a non-erotic mise-en-scène a mere two-thousand- three-hundred years after the sculptor of Lartie Scianti’s sarcophagus. Madame Recamier was an important women of her generation and her influence on European continental taste can hardly be overstated. She was a significant patron of the arts and was a good friend to artists ranging from David to Canova. Her social circle revolved around the salons of other powerful women including Caroline Murat and the Countess Paolina Borghese. It is important to note that she commissioned this portrait and therefore initiated the event and presumably dictated the conditions under which it would be created, as well as the style in which it would be painted.

David depicts the French matron in a fashion this is not entirely dissimilar to its Etruscan antecedent. She is shown wearing a classical style chiton that while it does convey the curve of her figure, it does not accentuate her sexual attributes. She is reclining on a piece of furniture modeled on classical examples. As a result of the popularity of this portrait, this piece of furniture has ever since taken the name recamier. Again the viewer is drawn into the composition by the gaze of its subject, but it would be an overstatement to describe this gaze as one of seduction. The function of this painting was not to immodestly display the figure of Madame Recamier for the lascivious consumption of male viewers, nor was it a vehicle for the sitter to assert her own sexual appetites. Instead this portrait of Madame Recamier was commissioned so that she might convey to its contemporary audience that she was a woman of breeding, taste and distinction like the classical matrons of the Roman Republican period, simultaneously enlightened and ennobled.

In many ways this painting has a political subtext, but that politic is not one of gender but rather is centered around the issues confronting French society at the time, namely political self-determination. The references in setting and costume to classical forms are iconographic of the political discourse of the period and reflects her enlightened republican sentiments. The stoic force of the painting conveys David’s focus on a rejection of the decadence of the period and advocacy of a more considered and disciplined approach to society as a whole and to the composition of painting in particular.

The Voyeurist Image

As Feminists have correctly observed, the principle way the female figure has been depicted by male artists voyeurizes the female subject from both the point of view of the artist and the viewer. It is characterized by the display of the female figure in such a way as to focus attention on her potential as a sexual object. Typically she is portrayed nude or partially nude and she is simultaneously eroticized and exoticized by the artist. The exoticization frequently takes the form of Classicism or Orientalism and serves to alert the viewer that this is not the girl next door. This is often little more than a contextual fig leaf since this exoticization is necessitated by the dual standard which has been applied to the depiction of the nude. Suitably labeled as a Venus or a Susannah, a flagrantly erotic nude could be publicly shown at the Salon and bought by the Emperor himself, without causing undue adverse comment.

Typically the gaze of the subject does not engage the viewer, hence the illusion created is one where the viewer supposes that they are looking through a window at a scene, usually in some exotic time or place, where they can observe without being observed. Not only does this type of composition offer contextual cover, it also makes the female figure unreal an thus unattainable, or as the Feminists would say “it negates the humanity of the female subject,” and as such the viewer is not required to imagine that it is they who are confronted by the moral decision implied by the subject of the work. This format for the depiction of the reclining female figure is custom designed for lascivious consumption while offering plausible deniability to the Puritanical protectors of public decency.

"Sleeping Ariadne," Roman, 2nd Century AD

“Sleeping Ariadne,” Roman, 2nd Century AD

In the Roman Sleeping Ariadne of the second century A. D., the sculptor has created just such a voyeuristic image. The voyeurism begins with the depiction of a draped, reclining female figure shown asleep on the waves. While she is clothed, her draperies are rendered to reveal rather than conceal her idealized figure. That she is asleep, and hence our viewing is unobserved, is iconographically justified by her context as Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus and waiting to be rescued by Dionysus  Even this iconography enhances her intrinsic eroticism. While the Romans certainly appreciated the erotic context of Ariadne’s story, such iconography offered them a pretext for viewing a sumptuously titillating nude and still maintaining the fiction the they were merely reviving the classics or indulging in an Epicurean moment. Since the subject of this work is purely mythological her consent is not particularly relevant. But one must still suppose the at some point there was a corporeal model for this composition, and whether she consented to, or approved of, such a depiction is purely a matter of speculation and as thus cannot be known. None the less, such compositions are typical of what Feminists call objectification.

In 1808 Paolina Borghese caused a minor contretemps by commissioning and apparently posing for Canova’s Venus Victrix.  When asked whether she posed nude for the sculptor, the sitter supposedly responded that Canova’s studio was well heated. The shock that greeted Borghese’s bold reply, much like the decision to have herself represented as Venus, the goddess of love (and not Diana, as Canova had proposed,) was overwhelmingly linked to the belief that reference to a woman’s sexual behavior was inappropriate in the public realm.10 However, it was this very subtext of transgression that contributed at least in part to the work’s extraordinary popularity. It was necessary to set up an enclosure to protect the work from the crowd that constantly pushed around it.

As a friend of Madame Recamier, Paolina Borghese would certainly have been aware of the David portrait and of the relationship between the French courtesan and the sculptor Canova. Madame Recamier was a friend and muse more than patron to Canova and she inspired at least two works by him. It is also probable that Canova as well was aware of the painting. Indeed the Venus Victrix is also shown in a classical context but to a very different end result.

"Venus Victrix," Canova.

“Venus Victrix,” Canova.

While classically draped, she is nude from the waist up and the viewer is invited to take in her idealized figure in all its Empyreal classical glory. If viewed from what is usually considered the front, ie. the profile view, she does not return the viewer’s gaze but instead coyly smiles off into the distance. In so overtly erotic a portrait, even the decadent Paolina Borghese required the plausible deniability offered by being depicted in a mythological context. Although, one is tempted to speculated whether her choice of Venus in Victory for such an intimately erotic portrait might not have been a not so subtle clandestine message to her friend Madame Recamier, conveying her recent conquest of the artist himself.

Even though this composition displays most of the ostensibly pernicious aspects of the Male Gaze, it is not exclusively a product of the male imagination. Paolina as both the sitter and the patron, clearly had the upper-hand in terms of the power dynamic between the artist and the subject. If she has been objectified, she has certainly been so of her own volition and to her own ends.

The Erotic Mise-en-scène

The erotic mise-en-scène is often mistaken for the voyeurist image by both the Puritan and the alike. But, as Rosalind Kraus observes, “viewed within a mise-en-scène the signifiers produce the opposite meanings: /connection/ thus no voyeurism.” In an erotic mise-en-scène the female figure is clearly eroticized and may or may not be exoticized as well. The figure usually acknowledges the presence of the viewer with her gaze and generally implies her consent to the viewing. The combined effect of eroticization with a permissive viewing, empowers the subject to in turn eroticizes the viewer thus forcing on the viewer to make an active moral choice of implied action. This view acknowledges the reality of feminine sexuality and reminds the viewer that the subject is a source of desire as well as an object of it.

"Le Grande Odalisque," Jean-August Dominique Ingres, 1814.

“Le Grande Odalisque,” Jean-August Dominique Ingres, 1814.

In commissioning Jean-August Dominique Ingres, to create Le Grande Odalisque in 1814, (figure 5) Caroline Murat initiated a dialog with other works of art similar to the competitive spirit Ingres assumed in making the painting. It is impossible not to trace the Grande Odalisque back to David’s Madame Recamier, on which Ingres had worked as David’s assistant.15. Painted fourteen years after David’s portrait and a mere six years after Canova’s Venus Victrix, it is certainly a response to both of these works. As Carol Ockman notes, “The close personal ties among the patrons of these works suggests that a deliberate iconographic dialog was being enunciated through the works themselves.” Indeed Odalisque simultaneously possesses the engaged gaze of Madame Recamier and the frank eroticism of the Venus Victrix. Given the relationship between these three women, as well as between these artists, this is no coincidence.

What is interestingly different about this work is that the exoticizing of the subject is complimented by a corresponding implied exoticizing of the viewer. If Odalisque is a harem girl then the implied relationship between the viewer and the subject is that of caliph and consort. No longer is the viewer merely the unobserved observer, nor is their position morally neutral, for they have become engaged by the subject’s gaze and are now moral agents in a temporal tremp l’oeil. That this painting was commissioned by a woman as a response to at least two other paintings commissioned by women as portraits is not insignificant in this context. For the Feminists, the very situation of exoticization means that the woman in question is a function of a male voyeuristic gaze—hence her passivity, her dependence, her condition as fetish or as “nothing but image.” But this point of view ignores the conditions under which the work was created, as well as for whom it was created. It also fails to acknowledge the degree to which the viewer’s connection with the subject creates a moral agency that mitigates the ostensible objectification of the female figure depicted. For unmasking the truth of exploitation behind the odalisque tradition we must consider Manet’s Olympia

Eduarde Manet’s, Olympia, painted in 1863,  debuted to almost universal derision by the critics of its day. Like Canova’s Venus Victrix and Ingres’ Odalisque, Olympia is depicted nude and highly eroticized. As is the case with David’s Madame Recamier as well with Odalisque, Olympia’s gaze engages the viewer. Given the similarities between these works, the question arises as to why the previous depictions of the reclining female figure met with almost universal acclaim while Manet’s depiction created such cognitive dissonance for the audience of its day.
The answer lies in its unique combination of attributes working in concert with its mise-en-scène format. The iconography of the subject implies that Olympia is a Parisian prostitute of the period.

This fact in combination with her direct (if disinterested) gaze, engages the viewer in a way that allows for neither exoticzation nor mere disconnected voyeurism. Without the convenient fiction that a mythological or historical figure as the subject provides, the picture immediately became an offence to public morality.19 Olympia’s gaze essentially requires her viewers to internalize the role of whore monger. The traditional contextual fig leaves are missing, and hence the viewer is faced with a potentially real consequence to the moral challenge posed by the painting. Between his depiction of Olympia as the ultimate form of the objectified female, namely the nude prostitute, and his insistence on making the viewer culpable in her prostitution, Manet has created a reclining female figure that offends Puritan and Feminist alike.


It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the nineteenth century public was fooled by it own ingenuousness. It is apparent that many intelligent people, were in fact, aware of their baser motives and the explicit eroticism of many mid-nineteenth century Venuses was commented on by contemporary critics.20 But the reaction to Manet’s “Olympia” demonstrates the fact that fig leaves are important even if we know what lies behind them.

Mane's "Olympia."

Manet’s “Olympia,” 1863.

What Feminists refer to as the Male Gaze, while certainly wide spread, is demonstrably neither a unitary nor a universal phenomenon. Nor is the presence of voyeurism or exoticization necessarily inflicted on the subject by virtue of the male patriarchy. The moral dynamic of the male depiction of the female reclining figure is not simply: man paints nude woman, man objectifies woman, man does this to perpetuate the patriarchy therefore man is bad. As has been demonstrated, despite the fact that male artists have created all the works mentioned, in some significant cases it has been women that have set the pictoral as well as the sexual agenda for such compositions and have done so with the power vested in them as patrons, sitters or both. By suggesting a parallel between rivalries among artists and rivalries among patrons, my goal is not to offer some alternative female taste as a compliment to the extant history of largely male taste. But rather, my intent is to show how the introduction of gender confounds the binarism embedded in these very ways of thinking.