In 1538, Titian completed his masterpiece “The Venus of Urbino.” It was very much in line with the Venetian tradition. I.e. it was designed wholly for the male gaze. The Venus figure is meant to be subject to the viewer, existing for his pleasure only. Now look at Manet’s 1863 painting “Olympia:”
At first glance, the set up of both paintings seems nearly identical. They both feature courtesans gazing at, presumably, a client. “Olympia” contains some critical differences from its predecessor, though. The most obvious is in Olympia’s demeanor. She is not melting under the viewer’s gaze. She is staring them down. Manet was riffing on “Venus of Urbino” to prove a point. He wanted to show how the Venetian tradition and ideas of sexuality propagated for centuries had changed in the modern era.
The most interesting difference to me is in the small details. Notice the puppy curled up on the courtesan’s bed in “Venus of Urbino.” Now look for the hunched over cat in “Olympia.” I came up with a theory about how these two animals align with the artist’s intentions. The puppy symbolizes familiarity and loyalty. The viewer can be comfortable looking into the room. The cat, however is in a stance of hostility. It goes along with Olympia’s unwelcoming facial expression.
Sometimes the background of paintings seems like merely filler. If look closely, though, almost everything has a deeper meaning. I encourage you to study the little things a little more the next time you go to a museum or merely look up your favorite painting online.