The modern bourgeoisie, reads the famous encomium in the Communist Manifesto, ‘has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions . . . agglomerated population, centralized means of production . . . conjured whole peoples out of the ground’footnote Pyramids, aqueducts, cathedrals; conducted, agglomerated, centralized . . . Clearly, for Marx and Engels, the ‘revolutionary role’ of the bourgeoisie lies in what this class has done. But there is also another, more intangible reason for their praise:

Wherever it has got the upper hand, the bourgeoisie has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation . . . For exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe . . . The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation . . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.footnote1

Three distinct semantic fields are interwoven in these feverish paragraphs. The first concerns the period that precedes the advent of the bourgeoisie, when the nature of social relations was concealed by a variety of deceptions: ‘idylls’, ‘veils’, ‘ecstasies’, ‘enthusiasms’, ‘holies’, ‘fervours’, ‘sentimentalisms’ and ‘prejudices’. Once in power, however—second passage—the new ruling class has ruthlessly scattered these shadows: it has ‘put an end to idyllic relations’, ‘torn asunder’, ‘drowned’, ‘stripped’, ‘reduced’, ‘swept away’ and ‘profaned’. Whence—finally—the new episteme of the bourgeois age: ‘naked self-interest’, ‘icy calculation’, ‘sober senses’, ‘facing one’s real conditions’, ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’. Instead of hiding its rule behind a host of symbolic delusions, the bourgeoisie forces all of society to face the truth about itself. It is the first realistic class of human history.

Naked self-interest. The masterpiece of the bourgeois century (Figure 1) ‘looks at the viewer’, writes T. J. Clark, ‘in a way which obliges him to imagine a whole fabric . . . of offers, places, payments, particular powers, and status which is still open to negotiation’.footnote2 Negotiation: the perfect word. Though Olympia is lying down, indolent, and as if doing nothing, she is actually working: she has raised her head, and has turned around to assess a potential customer—the viewer of the painting—with that intent gaze that is so hard to hold. Naked, shameless, direct. Look, by contrast, at Ingres’s Vénus Anadyomène (Figure 2), with her ‘looking which is not quite looking’ (Clark again), implicitly suggesting the idea that ‘the nude hides nothing because there is nothing to hide’.footnote3 It was precisely the ‘philistine sentimentalism’ of such paintings that Olympia set out to unmask: unmistakably, she is hiding her genitalia with her hand. Realism, indeed.

Manet painted Olympia, in Paris, in 1863; seven years later, in London, Millais exhibited his own version of the modern nude: The Knight Errant (Figure 3). A knight in full armour, next to a naked woman, twisting a colossal sword towards the ground: it takes imagination, to come up with this. The knight’s visor is up, but his eyes are drifting away from the woman, as if lost in thought; and he has an odd way of cutting those ropes, almost hiding behind that large tree. With the woman, it is just as strange: if Ingres’s Venus was looking nowhere in particular, Millais’s figure looks directly away; or more precisely, she has been made to look away—because in the original version, quite sensibly, she was turned towards the knight (Figure 4). But the reviews were cold, there were whispers of immorality, the painting didn’t sell . . . and Millais cut out her torso, and painted a new one. (Then he combed the hair of the original, lowered her eyes, covered her with a blouse, and sold her as a Protestant martyr: Figure 5.)