Manet had used this dramatic pairing – a well-dressed man sitting and staring at a nude woman – in Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.
For that painting the artist had used his friends as models. I can detect only one recognizable figure in Modern Olympia: it is the lascivious, smartly dressed male onlooker in the boudoir, who, although he has his back to the viewer, bears a striking resemblance to the painting’s creator.
It might look like a casual sketch, but in fact Cézanne has given us a thoroughly planned painting that pulses with an intense air of sexual tension, even more so than in Manet’s Olympia. But, Cézanne being Cézanne, the compositional structure has occupied his mind as much as the subject.
A huge vase, overflowing with green and yellow flowers, accounts for the entire top right-hand corner of the painting, which is balanced by a green and yellow carpet that dominates the bottom left-hand corner.
The arm movements of the attendant, Olympia and the frock-coated man all correspond, as does the alignment of their bodies. It is a picture that does not appear, at first, to be, as Leroy said, a ‘masterpiece of drawing, accuracy, finish’, but spend a few minutes looking at it and the rewards come thick and fast.
It is not Cézanne at the height of his powers – that comes in a later chapter – but its intelligence and skill show Leroy up for being without either.
Monet, his rage now behind him, was starting to enjoy Leroy’s barbed comments. ‘My dear Camille,’ he said with an unconcealed twinkle in his eye, ‘tell me, did M. Leroy make any comments on your work?’
Much thanks to Will Gompertz’s book What Are You Looking At….some of the blog is directly taken from this fantastic book.