It was thought to be highly regarded by Manet himself, so much so that he kept it in his own private collection until his death in 1883. The woman depicted as the nymph is Manet's wife-to-be Suzanne Leenhof. His relationship with Dutch Suzanne was complex, though evidently meant to last. Suzanne, 3 years Manet's senior, was a piano teacher to the Manet family and, most likely, the mistress of Edouard Manet's father, Auguste.
In 1852 she gave birth to a son out of wedlock, a boy who would never have his paternity established, though most certainly the father was either Eduouard or Auguste. 2 years after the painting and one year after the death of his father, Manet married Suzanne following a secret romance of more than 10 years. They stayed together until his death. The painting itself is thought very likely to have been based on the 1647 Rembrandt painting 'Susanna and the Elders', possibly as a play on the name of his lover.
The similarities between the 2 works of art are stark. Both depict a female, caught naked and displaying a look of surprise and insecurity. Suzanne wears only a necklace of pearl and a ring on her little ringer. The pose of the 2 ladies is almost identical, leaving little room for doubt as to the inspiration for the painting. The Surprised Nymph is considered to have marked a change in the direction of Manet's career, cementing his move towards the modernisation period in French art.
Indeed, he continued to spend time exploring and portraying the nude woman with large works of art. However, his future nude paintings began to be a little more controversial, Olympia (1863) in particular. Here, the woman is no longer portrayed as shy and innocent but with characteristics strongly associated with prostitutes and with a demeanour suggestive of confidence in sex. The work is now displayed in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires and is considered one of it's most prized possessions.