This painting shows a group of four people gathered together in a wooded grove. They are eating a picnic of fruit and bread among the dappled shade of the park. A small lake in the background has a rowing boat moored to its shore, indicating that this is a place of recreation.
The two men sat in the foreground are fully clothed and in the flow of a conversation. One of them gestures to the other as if enumerating on a point of philosophy or moral principle. They are lounged upon the grass as comfortably as they might be on a chaise longue.
The two women are different. They are not together but occupy different spaces within the picture. The woman in the background is partially clothed and is washing herself in the water. The woman in the foreground is completely unclothed; the blue dress and straw bonnet she was wearing lie next to her in a heap.
If, when you look at this painting, you find its overall feel to be slightly odd, as if the pieces don’t quite fit together, then you would not be alone. The image has an uncertain, discordant atmosphere. One of the reasons for this is the uneven sense of perspective. The woman who bathes in the background is larger than she should be, and the array of tree trunks doesn’t quite follow the logic of three-dimensional space. Moreover, there is no single source of light illuminating the scene but rather a scattering of painterly highlights that leave no consistent shadow.
The logic of the picture begins to make more sense if it is seen as having been made inside the artist’s studio, as a composite image spliced together somewhat artificially with different models at different times. For what Manet has painted is a deliberately contrived scene in which the rules of academic art — as they were established in 19th-century France — where, if not entirely broken, then consciously toyed with.
The size of the painting should give us a clue as to Manet’s unconventional approach. Such a large painting as this — the canvas measures more than two-and-a-half metres wide — was usually reserved for grand narrative works with scenes from Classical mythology or the Bible. Manet’s painting is a contemporary scene more akin to a “genre” painting, but given the imposing dimensions of something much grander.
When the painting was first shown, reactions from contemporary viewers about its artistic merits were marked by uncertainty. One critic complained that, “The nude hasn’t a good figure, unfortunately, and one can’t think of anything uglier than the man stretched out next to her…”
“Is this drawing? Is this painting?” asked another reviewer. “Manet thinks himself resolute and powerful. He is only hard.”
It’s worth noting that Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was first shown in an exhibition of works that were refused entry into the Salon exhibition of 1863. The Salon was the official art exhibition of the French Academy of Fine Arts. Manet’s painting was rejected, along with around 3–4,000 other submissions. The large number of refused works in that particular year prompted a second exhibition to be mounted, the Salon des Refusés, for all the rejected pieces. The result was a mixture of both strong and weak paintings, one in which it was not always easy to distinguish between artists who had consciously rejected the established academic standards and those who simply could not meet them.
Critics found elements of Manet’s painting to be “shocking” in its frank and jarring approach, for it was painting that seemed to resemble a traditional pastoral painting without fulfilling the established rules of style.
The sort of antecedent these reviewers may have had in mind was a work like Pastoral Concert by Titian, painted in around 1510. Pastoral Concert — part of the collection at the Louvre in Paris — conforms to the genre of art known as “pastoral” in its depiction of rural life in an idealised manner. In the work, a shepherd tends his flock in the middle-distance, whilst in the foreground nude women relax in the company of clothed musicians. The whole effect is dreamlike, recalling ideals of a Golden Age and of Classical Arcadia.
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is different — even if the broad elements are similar. In Manet’s painting, there is no suggestion of a timeless golden age. These are contemporary figures in modern 19th century dress. They are urbane and middle-class, on a weekend excursion into the countryside. Later, they will return to the city and perhaps visit a theatre or gallery.
One of the areas of concern for contemporary viewers was Manet’s depiction of the foreground women. Painting unclothed women was, of course, nothing new in art. Nor was the combination of clothed men and unclothed women in the same painting — no matter how incongruent the arrangement may seem to our modern eyes.
It was rather the manner in which Manet had expressed the nudity that troubled viewers, for it seemed to imply something more graphic and direct than had been established in traditional forms.
To understand this better, it’s worth comparing Manet’s work to another artwork of roughly the same time.
The French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres completed his Venus Andromeda in 1848. It shows a nude model in a more Classical pose. And whilst the nudity is full-frontal, an audience would have been far less concerned about the nature of this painting since it carried the gloss of mythological association. Combined with the fact that Venus’ eyes are averted from the viewer, gave Venus Andromeda the veneer of something erudite and allegorical — thereby permitting the audience to gaze upon her without fear of self-consciousness.
Manet’s depiction of an unclothed woman has no pretensions of Classical allegory. We are looking not at a nude but at a naked woman. To emphasise the point, her clothes are in a pile next to her, telling us that she is indeed a real person whom we may pass on a Parisian street.
Moreover, she looks directly out of the canvas to the audience. This kind of direct gaze from a female nude was highly unconventional. She is alert to our eyes upon her; she watches us watching, and thereby arouses the implicit question of our motives for looking. We cannot possess her in the way we can with the more demure version in Ingres’ painting. She is not Venus rising from the waves nor Diana hunting in the forest; she is an artist’s model. In fact, she was a well-known model named Victorine Meurent who posed as the central figure for many of Manet’s other canvases, including his 1863 work Olympia.
It is for these reasons that Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe has been called one of the very first modern works of art. For in the work, Manet breached many of the conventions of traditional representation. In doing so, he opened up a very modern possibility: that a work of art is not merely an object of beauty but also an object that plays a role in generating and maintaining those ideals of beauty.
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