How Sigmund Freud Interpreted Eduoard Manet’s “Olympia”


Sigmund Freud, by Max Halberstadt, 1921 via Wikipedia

One way to interpret a work of art like a painting, is to think of it as dream made manifest in the physical world. Though Freud’s theories have been questioned by many thinkers, we will use his method of dream interpretation as an approach to analyzing a painting. One element to consider in a painting is the artist’s use of color. Does a great deal of red, for example, reveal a suppressed passionate temperament or obsession in the artist?

Sigmund Freud, by Max Halberstadt, 1925 via Swann Galleries

Freud thought that certain shapes/objects symbolize sexual content; such as the idea of a gun or a zeppelin balloon having phallocentric connotations. He also claimed that the influence of the “family romance” or the power of the relationships between family members on the psyche of an individual as having a huge role in how that person relates to others throughout his/her life. This childhood experience becomes the “primal fantasy” that plays out throughout one’s life. Therefore, characters in a portrait painting might symbolize the artist’s relationship to his/her family.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863 via Wikipedia

The art historian Donald Kuspit (2002), gives an in-depth critique of the family dynamics that might have influenced the emotional relationships in the artist Eduoard Manet’s life. Kuspit analyzes how these emotional dynamics affected Manet’s self-perception as revealed in his art. For example, looking at Manet’s nude Olympia circa 1863, he claims it is a courting of the incest-barrier with the prostitute standing in as a substitute-object for Manet‘s mother.

This is just scratching the surface of how to analyze works of art and there are several avenues of theory that can be applied to understand the meaning of a work of art; a sociological perspective, historical and many others.

If this subject interests you, and you would like to learn more, you may read my MA thesis below.

I attained my MA in Psychology at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. I’m also an artist and designer, where you can find my work on my website. I’m also on Twitter.