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Discuss the process of female objectification through the works of Olympia [1863] by Manet, Les Demoiselles dAvignon [1907] by Pablo Picasso and Violin dIngres [1924] by Man Ray

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Discuss the process of female objectification through the works of Olympia [1863] by

Manet, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907] by Pablo Picasso and Violin d’Ingres [1924] by Man Ray

 “Female objectification occurs when you regard or treat a woman as a thing or an object, separate from her personal and human attributes or characteristics.”[1]

This definition is fitting when it comes to exploring the works of Manet, Picasso and Man Ray as they all share in the process of female objectification, which are presented through a variety of techniques within their works. These techniques are most notably the use of symbolism, the composition of the nudes and the embellishments which surrounded the subjects. The process of female objectification is also shown stylistically throughout the artist’s works whether it be traditional art, modern techniques or contemporary movements- all of which invoke numerous interpretations.

The painting of Olympia [1863] was described by Manet to show female objectification through “the debasement of women, their inferior social status, their exploitation as sex objects and their simultaneous elevation.” [2] Manet does this successfully throughout the painting, helped by the usage of objects surrounding Olympia herself and within the background of the piece; this helps the progression of female objectification as Manet is able to then use these objects to help ‘sexualise’ her further. Manet uses Olympia’s lavish jewellery to denote her place within society; she wears a gold bracelet (symbolising her wealth) however it is the earrings Olympia wears which help to reveal her to be a prostitute. Although the earrings themselves also symbolise riches, in the start of the twentieth century within Europe, this was considered to be a sign of a common woman. She also wears an orchid in her hair, which symbolises sensuality, along with one of her slippers carelessly tossed to the ground, which give further indication to her profession.[3] The most ironic object however, is the pearl drop attached to the black velvet ribbon around her neck, which is scarcely visible due to Olympia’s pale skin tone, showing the stark contrast of her riches and indications as to how it was acquired. The pearl itself would normally indicate innocence and decorum, however the sharp contrast of the black ribbon on her skin represents the division between her head (her psychological disposition) with her appearance of an upper class woman, and the rest of her body (her physical disposition), Olympia’s ‘dark’ and licentious occupation. [4] The symbolic use and common understanding of these objects clearly show the process of female objectification as they make it blatantly clear to the viewer what her occupation is. The black cat within the painting also helps to further objectify Olympia and helps to give knowledge of her occupation further. Since the medieval period cats have been a symbol of lust and promiscuity, and prostitute were often nickname “cats,”[5] giving a huge indication of Olympia’s profession. However, historians have argued that Olympia was sexualised further as an object as: “the cat is symbolic of animal activity and sexuality. The cat’s tail is raised in a mockery of a phallus.” Thus, showing the underlying message of Olympia’s occupation of a prostitute, objectified for the viewer’s pleasure. The thick application of paint used to paint the cats tail, gives a sense of movement and rapidity to the tail which further underlines the rampant and animalistic nature of Olympia’s profession and objectification.

Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, meaning “the tarts of Avignon” instantly give away the females profession as prostitutes however, if this has been missed by the viewer, the use of objects is also used to depict the sense of promiscuity and give away the females occupation. This can be seen by the ‘alien style’ bowl of fruit in the foreground drawn angularly, and contrasting sharply with the white and black drapery surrounding it[6]. Art historian Wayne Andersen states that “the pear and grapes...could be seen as a woman’s sexe, the pear fleshy vulva invitingly parted, the grapes of curly pubic hair,” [7]symbolising the objectification of Les Demoiselles as prostitutes and thus sexual of the male viewers and their male clients.

In Man Ray’s ‘Violin d’Ingres’, he turns his model ‘Kiki’ into an object, the violin. Man Ray painted the ‘f-holes’ of the violin onto the photograph and then ‘rephotographed’ it, changing what should have been an original nude into a distorted photographic mixture, historian Susan Siegfried states that this technique of objectifying the woman “disrupt our expectations about this appropriate nude. Animate and inanimate, tradition and avant garde, respect and ridicule, the elegant and the grotesque- all these are juxtaposed.” [8]The simple brushstrokes turns the whole meaning of the image into something quite witty and somewhat comical, with a disconcerting past thought of the model’s armless figure. The title of the piece itself depicts the model’s profession as a prostitute, ‘Le Violin d’Ingres’, a French phrase meaning “hobby”. This in itself leads to the connotations that although Ingres’ pastime was playing the violin, ‘playing’ with Kiki also was a ‘hobby’ of Man Ray. The picture can be said to “maintain a tension between objectification and appreciation of the female form”.[9]

Like Manet’s Olympia, Man Ray has also used objects to sexually objectify the female. This can be seen by the turban placed on the models head; however the background of the piece must be explored to understand the meaning of it. Historians Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy and Uta Grosenick argue that “we instinctively think of the importance of stringed instruments to the Cubists who incorporated [instruments] into their complex still lifes. While in Analytic Cubism they were merely lifeless, sexless objects, Man Ray’s “violin” gives the photo an erotic aura.” Both historians then carry on and suggest that this is emphasised by the reference to the classicist painter Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres and his famous ‘Turkish Bath,’ where the central nude has her back to the viewer. This is shown within Man Ray’s piece, as he has drawn her with such ‘cold precision’ that she emits such sensuality. This shows the importance of the turban as it has been said to ‘pick up’ on Ingres’ oriental ambience, but also an ‘ironic comment’ on the cold eroticism of the Turkish bath scene. [10] In Man Ray’s words “the instrument [the female] is simply ready and waiting for the soloist [the male]”, this furthermore objectifies her as a sexual object, waiting there only to pleasure a man.

The process of female objectification can also be shown through the works of Picasso and Manet through the usage of hanging cloths and sheets. In Picasso’s Les Demoiselles, there is one woman who stands out from all the others, she has her elbow lifted and has pulled the sheet across her thigh. Art historians have also said that the bowl of fruit/phallus is the viewer’s “erect penis and it points towards the woman of our choice”, [11]showing that the female is objectified as the artist intended the viewer to be male. Although this woman appears to be standing, she has crossed her legs and her hands are behind her head, she has poised herself into a position we would associate her to be lying down, even though her body seems to be perpendicular to our line of sight. By lying down, the viewer can easily identify the woman as a prostitute, and further sexually objectifies her. Similarly, in Manet’s Olympia she is also presented in such a position that her profession is given away. The sheet is spread lazily across her bed instead of covering any of her naked body, and she is seen sitting elevated in an evocative manner, again, completely sexualising Olympia for the male viewer’s pleasure.  

As mentioned above, the positioning of the female body and the nakedness of the females further objectifies them as sexual objects for man’s pleasure and desire. In Manet’s Olympia, she gazes directly at the spectator whilst her maid gazes intently at her, art historian Cherene Sherrard-Johnson states that “Olympia’s gaze and the gaze of her maid disconcert viewers by preventing easy identification and erotic pleasure,” [12]meaning that viewers are somewhat embarrassed and almost aroused by the blatancy of Olympia’s profession, further objectifying her. The position of Olympia’s hand does not look as if she is attempting to cover any modesty but instead is poised over her vagina in self satisfying manner, this coupled with her gaze that was described as “making her the viewer not the subject of the portrait[13]”, depicts that she is a proud, powerful sexual icon, however she is objectified in the sense that although she may control her own sexual desire, she is ultimately reliant on mans desires to fund her lavish lifestyle. Olympia is further objectified as an object of sexual desire through presenting her as a sexually appealing woman. This is done through the colour of her skin tone, a stark paleness which was considered attractive within society at the time of the painting. However, pale skin was also considered to symbolise wealth, so by making Olympia pale, Manet was challenging the acuity of the vocation and art within society at the time. By making Olympia sexually attractive this further objectifies her for man’s satisfaction only. In Picasso’s portrait the figures also stare at the viewer, even the woman standing from a portrait angle, again similar to Olympia, this gives the feeling that the viewer is the subject and desire of the prostitute’s gazes. The females have also been painted in different variations of cubism, and this has the effect of reinforcing their intense gaze as the viewer will often look at the women’s styles individually before realising that the figures are naked. It is when the viewer looks at the naked females, that they are then objectified as the viewer will then make the connection of them being sexual objects, and then will link their profession to prostitution.

The copying and somewhat mocking of classical paintings which can be seen in Man Ray and Manet’s pieces further objectify women as sexual objects. Man ray’s Violin de Ingres is a mimic of his earlier painting ‘The Valpincon Bather’, painted in a neo-classical style. Charles Baudelaire described The Valpincon Bather as having “deep voluptuousness, yet in many ways she is presented as essentially chaste”, [14]he also argues that any contradiction to this statement such as the turn of her neck and the creases in her bed are counteracted by the “cool tone in which her flesh is rendered as well as by elements such as the cool and elegant black-veined marble to the left of her.” [15] It is evident that Violin de Ingres is a direct opposite of this piece, as she is presented anything but ‘chaste’, sitting in a similar poise, Violin de Ingres is depicted as a violin, a ‘fiddle’, showing that she is “played” and “fiddled” with, demonstrating clearly that she is a prostitute, and this objectifies her, as she is again seen as only an object for men’s sexual desire, unlike the bather who is depicted as a ‘pure’ innocent woman with little sexual desire. Manet’s Olympia is also a mockery of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”, as it is compositionally and stylistically similar. Manet’s Olympia is stylistically similar to Titian’s Venus of Urbino as Olympia is surrounded by a thin dark outline, which was popular in the renaissance period and often used by the artists. The replacement of the black cat to Manet’s painting is also evident, and further helps to objectify Olympia. In Titian’s Venus, a dog is seen in the painting which symbolised fertility with no other sexual connotations unlike Manet’s Olympia. The composition of both females is also parallel, however what separates Venus from prostitution is arguably the position of her hand compared to that of Olympia’s. Olympia’s, as mentioned earlier, gives away her profession as she covers her vagina in a dominating and sexually suggestive manner, she is not ashamed of the viewer seeing her gentiles, but that she has the power to decide who sees her so intimately, where as Venus’ hand is delicately poised over her sex in a more innocent manner. By mocking and modifying iconic pieces of historical art that viewers would have been familiar with and would have compared to, this would identify the two women as prostitutes and further emphasizes them as sexual objects meant only for male desire.  

In conclusion, through many stylistic and artistic methods the artists have achieved female objectification. These methods include the use of objects that surround or embellish the subject(s) within the painting, along with their symbolism and implications that help the viewer to identify the women as prostitutes and objects of sexual desire. By coupling the use of objects with sexual connotations, the women are sexually objectified through nakedness to draw in the viewer who becomes aware that he is looking at a woman with sexual desire and motive. The women are then further objectified by mocking classical art, in which the viewer can clearly connect and identify the women as prostitutes and sexually promiscuous whilst ridiculing ‘traditional art’. With all these methods and techniques lacing each piece, Manet, Picasso and Man Ray have successfully accomplished female objectification.

Word Count: 2,347



Harrison, Charles. Art in theory:  1900 - 1990 ; an anthology of changing ideas. Reprinted. ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.

Hess, Thomas B., and Linda Nochlin. Woman as sex object;  studies in erotic art, 1730-1970.. London: Allen Lane, 1972.

Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the new Negro woman. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Leroy, Cathrin, and Uta Grosenick. Surrealism. Koln: Taschen, 2004.

Miller, Andrew H., and James Eli Adams. Sexualities in Victorian Britain  . Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Rosenblum, Robert. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres  . New York: H.N. Abrams, 1967.

Siegfried, Susan L.. Fingering Ingres  . Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.


"  Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) (Getty Museum)  ." The Getty. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=61240>.

Andersen, Wayne V.. Picasso's brothel:  les demoiselles d'Avignon. New York: Other Press, 2002. Print.

"Eduardo Manet's Olympia." Olympia. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <victoriancontexts.pbworks.com/w/page/12407336/Edouard-Monet's-Olympia:-Comfortable-in-Her-Own-Skin>.

"Female Objectification, A Collection of Images | p.a.p.-blog | human rights etc.." p.a.p.-blog | human rights etc. | human rights from the perspective of politics, art and philosophy (hence p.a.p.), but also law, economics & statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2010. <http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2009/11/26/female-objectification-a-collection-of-images/>.

"Les Demoiselles." Smart History. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <smarthistory.org/les-demoiselles-davignon.html>.

"The Bather, known as the Valpinçon Bather  Jean Auguste Dominique INGRES (Montauban, 1780-Paris, 1867)  Paintings | Louvre Museum." Site officiel du musée du Louvre. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226356&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226356&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500815&fromDept=true&baseIndex=11&bmUID=1189640270096&bmLocale=en>.

"The Cat in Art: Symbol of Idleness, Lust, and Evil." Suite101.com: Online Magazine and Writers' Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.suite101.com/content/the-cat-in-art-a29193#ixzz174rLBuQx>.

[1] Female objectification, http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2009/11/26/female-objectification-a-collection-of-images/, [accessed 21/11/10]

[2] Thomas B. Hess, Linda Nochlin, Woman as sex object: studies in erotic art, 1730-1970,  (Allen Lane, London 1972) p.230

[3] Ander H. Miller, James Eli Adams, Sexualities in Victorian Britain, (Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1996), p.133

[4] Eduardo Manet's Olympia: Comfortable in Her Own Skin, http://victoriancontexts.pbworks.com/w/page/12407336/Edouard-Monet's-Olympia:-Comfortable-in-Her-Own-Skin, [accessed 22/11/10]

[5] The Cat in Art: Symbol of Idleness, Lust and Evil, http://www.suite101.com/content/the-cat-in-art-a29193#ixzz174rLBuQx, [accessed 22/11/10]

[6] Charles Harrison, Art in theory, 1900 - 2000: an anthology of changing ideas, (Oxford, Blackwell, 2009), p.209

[7]Wayne Andersen, Picasso's brothel: les demoiselles d'Avignon, (Other Press, New York, 2002), p. 97

[8] Susan L. Siegfried, Fingering Ingres, (Oxford, Blackwell 2001), p. 122

[9] The J. Paul Getty Museum, http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=61240, [accessed 20/11/2010]

[10]Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy, Uta Grosenick, Surrealism, (Köln, Taschen 2004), p.90

[11]Art of a global conflict, http://smarthistory.org/les-demoiselles-davignon.html, [accessed 20/11/10]

[12]Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Portraits of the new Negro woman, (Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2007), p.34


[14] Louvre, http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226356&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226356&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500815&fromDept=true&baseIndex=11&bmUID=1189640270096&bmLocale=en, [accessed 21/11/10]

[15] Robert Rosenblum, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, (H.N. Abrams, New York 1967), p.66

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