Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass or Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863)

Édouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass or Le déjeuner sur l'herbe 81.89 × 103.94 in., oil on canvas. Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France.

Édouard Manet (23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883) is often grouped with the Impressionist movement in Paris during the nineteenth century though he was never an official member. His work helped to bridge the gap between realism and impressionism. The Impressionist movement is most well-known by Claude Monet's Waterlilies series or Degas Ballerinas but it was a huge and vitally important movement that changed the way artists and the public related to art and its creation. The idea of plein air painting, or painting outside with a quick impression of nature instead of hours within a studio using posed subject, gave artists a new freedom to portray what they saw in an expressive way that was not held back by small details or perfected lines. Manet's career straddled this movement and the previous of representational realism. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe showcases both styles of his career.

The Impressionists were important for so many reasons but in particular they are to be given the credit of breaking artists away from a devotion and allegiance to the Academies. By severing the relationship between exhibition and academies, and launching their own showcase, the Impressionist paved the away for every avant-garde movement that would follow in Europe and the United States.
One of the first three works that Manet originally submitted to the the Salon de Paris. All three were rejected. The artists that were held out of the Salon were outraged and raised a great fuss that gained even the attention of the Emperor. He decreed that the rejected works were exhibited in the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused), an annex to the Salon de Paris, where the public could judge the controversial works for itself. Though the annex was looked down upon because of lack of a curatorial discerning eye that the juried Salon de Paris had, many of the artists were showing the most innovative works of the time. James McNeill Whister's Girl in White was also on display at the annex.

Manet's work created a huge uproar and scandal because of its use of a female nude within a larger work that contained male figures fully clothed. The large format of the work put it into the company of the great history paintings of David and his peers. Because this work can not be considered moralizing or inspiring of national pride the idea that such a format would be used was in itself scandalous. However, other elements were even more unusual and new.

The primary aspect that caused a sensation was the subject matter. Though the composition is taken from a print of Raphael's, the idea of clothed and nude figures also shows up clearly in Titian's Pastoral Concert. In those works however the nude women are either goddesses, muses or allegories. Here the nude model is absolutely contemporary, a thoroughly modern Parisian woman. The clothes piled beside her also seem fashionable and current. She is portrayed as a prostitute because of her nudity in the presence of the two men. The two males, both modeled on relations of Manet's, are identifiable as student or artist types. Also, the small frog in the lower left corner is another symbol of what could be construed as her status as a prostitute because the French word "grenouille" was also a slang word for available women. The woman looks directly at the viewer, asserting her presence through her gaze in a way that both the male figures do not. The figures do not seem to be connected through their interaction in any way though their legs are suggestively intertwined. Thus the picnic is given then to sexual overtones through small, symbolic details rather than an overt suggestion. The other nude in the background bathing is an important figure also because of the lack of perspective used in depicting her. This leads to the other element that made this painting so controversial.

The form and technique used to execute this masterpiece was revolutionary for a period that was dominated by the Academy. The flat application of color, and lack of subtle gradation that can be seen in the other works that have influenced this painting were both huge leaps from the polished surfaces that can be seen in the Academic paintings of the day (see previous post on David's Death of Marat for example). Also there is a complete lack of interest in depicting depth or perspective, as seen in the position and size of the bather in the background of the work. Though there are some elements of fore-shortening in the work, it is awkward and misplaced therefore only rendering the lack of finish more blatant.

This work is one of my personal favorites and was a favorite among many artists of the day and after. Pablo Picasso, especially, was heavily influenced by the work and did a complete series based off the work. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe was recently exhibited at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris in a wonderful show that displayed Picasso's works of the same name arranged around Manet's original.

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