Every student of art history will at some point come across Édouard Manet’s Olympia, a painting widely considered as a foundational work of modern art. Denise Murrell recalls the moment the lecture slide first flashed up on the screen when she was a graduate student at Columbia.
“My heart started beating a little bit faster,” Murrell says, remembering how she took in the white nude, the prostitute Olympia, and the black servant in equal measure, leaning in to listen closely to what followed.
“I’m really curious to hear what the instructor is going to say about the black servant,” Murrell explains. “Is it going to be in racial terms? Is he going to explicitly express the fact that she’s black, and will it be in terms that I’m not going to find outdated in terms of current thinking about issues of race?”
Instead, the professor spoke about Olympia without mentioning the maid figure in the image, which bothered Murrell more than anything that might have been said about her. “From my perspective, she was there in plain view. I saw her just as clearly as I saw the white prostitute. But to ignore her, to say nothing about her, to not acknowledge her presence, rendered her invisible.”
This experience motivated Murrell to find out more about the black figure in the painting. Although the artist Lorraine O’Grady wrote a famous paper about her in the ’90s, Murrell discovered there were exponentially fewer articles dedicated to the black figure than the white one. So she embarked on a journey that began as a seminar paper, expanded into her PhD thesis, and on October 24, will finally open at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University as an exhibition, which will be expanded at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in March next year.