With the exception of a few very crude caricatures, the black servant figure almost escapes scrutiny in the scandal caused by the presentation of Manet’s Olympia at the Salon in 1865, as critics focused primarily on the painting’s subject matter, which was deemed vulgar, and the lack of idealisation of the female nude.
The “invisibility” of the black woman reveals the conventional element of the depiction (a deferential pose with a bouquet of flowers) which also belongs to a long-standing Orientalist tradition playing on the contrasts and erotic tension created by black and white bodies in close proximity. However, Manet operates a radical shift by opting to represent an image of prostitution in contemporary Paris rather than a fantasy toilette scene in exotic climes. The presence of a black servant – echoing an imaginary aristocratic and colonial world – can be read as an indicator of the high social status of the courtesan, and therefore reinforces the subversive power of the painting.
Bazille, who admired Manet, achieves an unusual synthesis between modern Paris and the distant East in La Toilette which was rejected by the Salon in 1870. In his Modern Olympia, which he presented at the first Impressionist exhibition, Cézanne goes behind the scenes of Manet’s painting by introducing a client and giving the servant an active and theatrical role.