The Luncheon on the Grass: Edouard Manet

The Luncheon on the Grass: Édouard Manet

The Luncheon on the Grass is an 1863 Realist Impressionist painting by leading French artist Édouard Manet.

The Luncheon on the Grass (1863), also known by its French name Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, is one of the most widely recognised paintings in art history, and certainly, Édouard Manet’s most famous painting alongside its contemporary, Olympia.

Upon its exhibition at the Impressionist-dominated Salon des Refusés of 1863, originally titled Le Bain, The Luncheon on the Grass sparked a flurry of almost unabated negative criticism. For many, an entirely nude female figure sitting at a picnic beside two clothed males was patently indecent. The white expanse of her flesh, almost perfectly clear of shade and in stark contrast with its surroundings, was widely seen as underdeveloped or indeed unfinished.

In a glade beside a pool of water (likey in Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine, in the periphery of Paris), we see a trio of figures: two men and one woman, the latter, as mentioned, in the nude. She is the only one sitting on a sheet and looking our way, while of the men the one on the right is reclining backwards while speaking; his interlocutor is sitting while propping himself with one arm and looking out of frame to our right.

Another woman wearing a white robe appears to be exiting the water behind the trio in the foreground. We assume the water to be the Seine. In the foreground to the left a pile of sheets, clothes, fruits, and bread represents the furnishings of a seemingly consummated luncheon.

The most important subject, the naked woman who is looking at us, is likely Victorine Meurent, the same model from Olympia, another painting in which her manner of addressing the viewer with her eyes, more than anything, caused unease and effectively scandal among the Parisian middle class.

The two men are apparently modelled upon Manet’s two brothers and his brother-in-law. They are dressed according to the male fashion of the time; the reclining man is sporting a dandyish hat with a wisp and a cane. Both of the men are dressed and bearded; the prevailing tones along their bodies are therefore black and brown. They are thereby in strong opposition to the naked woman, both in attire and colour.

Completing the human architecture of Le Déjeuner — the woman on the edge of the water behind them, caught in the act of lifting the hem of her white robe and looking down at her foot. Her function is partly narrative: she tells us that the naked woman in the foreground might have just finished her bath in that same pool — which is why she is sitting on that pale-blue sheet.

The woman in the background might also be implying that the picnic we see is indeed an amorous ensemble of two women and two men, something the dominant trio at the centre might cause us to underappreciate. (Bear in mind the suspicion, encouraged by Olympia, that the theme of prostitution might be hiding somewhere in the canvas).

But she also serves to create a pyramidal shape with the trio — an isosceles triangle to which she acts as the apex. This triangle establishes the centre of the painting and constitutes on its own the essence of the painting.

A significant passage in this composition accomplished through the quick brushstroke technique is the spread of picnic remnants in the bottom left. An almost Impressionistic touch may be appreciated in those gleaming cherries, an instance of still life in a painting devoted to still-living nature (something of a Manet trademark). Of course, the remnants also tell a story.

For this composition, Manet is likely to have studied Rembrandt’s depictions of the biblical Susanna (from the Additions to the Book of Daniel) during his visit to the Hague in 1856. He most certainly began preparing The Luncheon on the Grass by 1862, when he sighted a group of girls swimming in the Seine.

It is, however, important to bear in mind that Manet was constantly aware of the canonical masters who he had studied all his life.

It has therefore been noted that The Luncheon on the Grass is a remake of Titian’s Pastoral Concert (c. 1510), in which a female nude sits before two clothed men, but is bashfully turned away from the viewer.

The men are also not simple contemporaries of Titian and his audience but musicians. The Luncheon on the Grass also bears semblance to the engraving created by Marcantonio Raimondi, on the basis of drawings by Raphael: The Judgement of Paris (the engraving is at the Uffizi). It is in Raimondi that we find the origin of the hand gesture of Manet’s man on the right.

Manet considered this painting an emblem of his art, though he expected and feared the critical backlash upon its showing. The rejection by the official Salon in 1863 came as no surprise, in a year when the multitude of rejections spurred Napoleon III, a very conservative art appreciator, to institute the Salon des Refusés, as an apparent second chance for those artists rejected by the actual Salon. Neither Napoleon nor the art establishment had any serious expectations for the new Salon.

In a manner remarkably similar to the case of Olympia, the polite Parisian bourgeoisie reacted with mob-like disdain, to the point of coming to the Salon with the only purpose of laughing at the painting. As the novelist and critic Émile Zola observed, what shocked the hypocritical mass was not the nude itself — it was not pornographic; establishment art was full of nudes — but the absence of any “excuse” for the nude and the blatant contemporaneity of the figures involved.

Just like Olympia, the naked woman of the Luncheon was not a goddess or a mythological maiden. She testifies to the existence of uninhibited sexuality and of an unorthodox way, for a woman, of perceiving herself. In the case of Olympia, even the very serious social phenomenon of prostitution was implied in the supposedly distressing vision given to the Parisian public by Victorine Meurent.

Educated critics, like Eugène Delacroix, argued that the flatness of that astounding white was wholly unpleasant and showed incompetence with shading. A likely justification for this may be Monet’s perception, observed in Dutch as well as English painting, of light as a constituent of colour and therefore a presence in the objects, which therefore shine. The colours then gain their proper register by being juxtaposed to complementaries and opposites so as to be vivified or darkened.

Another deliberate choice of Manet’s, the abandonment of geometric perspective (see the woman in the background), was similarly indicted as a lack of skill.

The Luncheon on the Grass has been an extremely influential painting in the history of art. It directly inspired Claude Monet in 1866, James Tissot (1870), Paul Cézanne (1877), and Max Ernst (1944) to paint their own versions of Luncheon on the Grass.

Édouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass, also known by its French name Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, can be found, along with Olympia, in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France.

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