|The Luncheon on the Grass|
|French: Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe|
|Medium||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||208 cm × 264.5 cm (81.9 in × 104.1 in)|
|Location||Musée d'Orsay, Paris|
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (English: The Luncheon on the Grass) - originally titled Le Bain (The Bath) - is a large oil on canvas painting by Édouard Manet created in 1862 and 1863. It depicts a female nude and a scantily dressed female bather on a picnic with two fully dressed men in a rural setting. Rejected by the Salon jury of 1863, Manet seized the opportunity to exhibit this and two other paintings in the 1863 Salon des Refusés, where the painting sparked public notoriety and controversy. The piece is now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. A smaller, earlier version can be seen at the Courtauld Gallery, London.
The painting features a nude woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men. Her body is starkly lit and she stares directly at the viewer. The two men, dressed as young dandies, seem to be engaged in conversation, ignoring the woman. In front of them, the woman's clothes, a basket of fruit, and a round loaf of bread are displayed, as in a still life. In the background, a lightly clad woman bathes in a stream. Too large in comparison with the figures in the foreground, she seems to float above them. The roughly painted background lacks depth, giving the viewer the impression that the scene is not taking place outdoors, but in a studio. This impression is reinforced by the use of broad "studio" light, which casts almost no shadows. The man on the right wears a flat hat with a tassel, a kind normally worn indoors.
Despite the mundane subject, Manet deliberately chose a large canvas size, measuring 81.9 x 104.1 in (208 by 264.5 cm), normally reserved for historical, religious, and mythological subjects. The style of the painting breaks with the academic traditions of the time. He did not try to hide the brush strokes; the painting even looks unfinished in some parts of the scene. The nude is also starkly different from the smooth, flawless figures of Cabanel or Ingres.
A nude woman casually lunching with fully dressed men was an affront to audiences' sense of propriety, though Émile Zola, a contemporary of Manet's, argued that this was not uncommon in paintings found in the Louvre. Zola also felt that such a reaction came from viewing art differently than "analytic" painters like Manet, who use a painting's subject as a pretext to paint.
There is much still not known about the painting, such as when Manet actually began painting it, exactly how he got the idea, and how and what sort of preparation works he did. Though Manet had claimed this piece was once valued at 25,000 Francs in 1871, it actually remained in his possession until 1878 when Jean-Baptiste Faure, opera-singer and collector, bought it for just 2,600 Francs.
The figures of this painting are a testament to how deeply connected Manet was to Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Some assume that the landscape of the painting is meant to be l'île Saint-Ouen, which was just up the Seine from his family property in Gennevilliers. Manet often used real models and people he knew as reference during his creation process. The female nude is thought to be Victorine Meurent, the woman who became his favorite and frequently portrayed model, who later was the subject of Olympia. The male figure on the right was based on a combination of his two brothers, Eugène and Gustave Manet. The other man is based on his brother-in-law, Dutch sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff. Nancy Locke referred to this scene as Manet's family portrait.
What many critics find shocking about this painting is the interaction, or lack thereof, between the three main subjects in the foreground and the woman bathing in the background. There are many contrasting qualities to the painting that juxtapose and distance the female nude from the other two male subjects. For example, the feminine versus the masculine, the naked versus the clothed, and the white color palette versus the dark color palette creates a clear social difference between the men and the woman. Additionally, some viewers are intrigued by the questions raised by the gaze of the nude woman. It is indeterminable whether she is challenging or accepting the viewer, looking past the viewer, engaging the viewer, or even looking at the viewer at all. This encounter identifies the gaze as a figure of the painting itself, as well as the figure object of the woman's gaze.
As with the later Olympia (1863) and other works, Manet's composition reveals his study of the old masters, as the disposition of the main figures is derived from Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving The Judgment of Paris (c. 1515) after a drawing by Raphael. Raphael was an artist revered by the conservative members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and his paintings were part of the teaching programme at the École des Beaux-Arts, where copies of fifty-two images from his most celebrated frescoes were permanently on display. Le Bain (an early title for Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe) was therefore, in many ways, a defiant painting. Manet was cheekily reworking Raphael, turning a mythological scene from one of the most celebrated engravings of the Renaissance into a tableau of somewhat vulgar Parisian holidaymakers.
Antoine Watteau, La Partie Carrée, (c. 1713)
Scholars also cite two works as important precedents for Manet's painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe: The Pastoral Concert by Giorgione or possibly Titian (in the Louvre) and Giorgione's The Tempest, both of which are famous Renaissance paintings.The Tempest, which also features a fully dressed man and a nude woman in a rural setting, offers an important precedent for Manet's painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe.Pastoral Concert even more closely resembles Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, as it features two dressed men seated in a rural setting, with two undressed women. Pastoral Concert is in the collection of the Louvre in Paris and is likely, therefore, to have been studied by Manet.
According to Proust, he and Manet had been lounging by the Seine as they spotted a woman bathing in the river. This prompted Manet to say, "I copied Giorgione's women, the women with musicians. It's black that painting. The ground has come through. I want to redo it and do it with a transparent atmosphere with people like those we see over there."
There may be a connection between Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and the work of Jean Antoine Watteau. Manet's original title, Le Bain, initially drew the main attention to the woman near the water. This bathing figure alone is quite similar to the figure in Watteau's Le Villageoise, as both women crouch or lean over near water, simultaneously holding up their skirts. It's possible that Manet adapted this pose, which is more clearly seen in a sketch of his years before his creation of Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe.
There were many mixed reviews and responses to Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe when it was first displayed and it continues to yield a variety of responses. The initial response was characterized by its blunt rejection from the Paris Salon and subsequent display in the Salon des Refusés. Though many critiques were rooted in confusion about the piece, they were not always completely negative.
One interpretation of the work is that it depicts the rampant prostitution present at that time in the Bois de Boulogne, a large park on the western outskirts of Paris. This prostitution was common knowledge in Paris, but was considered a taboo subject unsuitable for a painting. Indeed, the Bois de Boulogne is to this day known as a pick-up place for prostitutes and illicit sexual activity after dark, just as it had been in the 19th century.
Though the peculiarity of the combination of one female nude with three clothed figures sparked mixed responses, the lack of interaction of the figures in addition to the lack of engagement by the nude woman provoked laughter instead of offense. Laughter as a response represses the sexual tension and makes the scene rather unthreatening to the viewer in the end.
The Luncheon on the Grass is the greatest work of Édouard Manet, one in which he realizes the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape. We know the power with which he vanquished this difficulty. There are some leaves, some tree trunks, and, in the background, a river in which a chemise-wearing woman bathes; in the foreground, two young men are seated across from a second woman who has just exited the water and who dries her naked skin in the open air. This nude woman has scandalized the public, who see only her in the canvas. My God! What indecency: a woman without the slightest covering between two clothed men! That has never been seen. And this belief is a gross error, for in the Louvre there are more than fifty paintings in which are found mixes of persons clothed and nude. But no one goes to the Louvre to be scandalized. The crowd has kept itself moreover from judging The Luncheon on the Grass like a veritable work of art should be judged; they see in it only some people who are having a picnic, finishing bathing, and they believed that the artist had placed an obscene intent in the disposition of the subject, while the artist had simply sought to obtain vibrant oppositions and a straightforward audience. Painters, especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not have this preoccupation with the subject which torments the crowd above all; the subject, for them, is merely a pretext to paint, while for the crowd, the subject alone exists. Thus, assuredly, the nude woman of The Luncheon on the Grass is only there to furnish the artist the occasion to paint a bit of flesh. That which must be seen in the painting is not a luncheon on the grass; it is the entire landscape, with its vigors and its finesses, with its foregrounds so large, so solid, and its backgrounds of a light delicateness; it is this firm modeled flesh under great spots of light, these tissues supple and strong, and particularly this delicious silhouette of a woman wearing a chemise who makes, in the background, an adorable dapple of white in the milieu of green leaves. It is, in short, this vast ensemble, full of atmosphere, this corner of nature rendered with a simplicity so just, all of this admirable page in which an artist has placed all the particular and rare elements which are in him.
Zola presents a fictionalised version of the painting and the controversy surrounding it in his novel L'OEuvre (The Masterpiece).
Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897. (detail).