Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe

Édouard Manet 1863;
Luncheon on the Grass;
Musee d'Orsay;
Oil on canvas, 81 x 101 cm

The active spirit of independance in Impressionism--- if not its style --- may be considered to date from this famous work, refused by the Salon in 1863 and exhibited, under the title of Le Bain (The Bath) at the Salon des Refusés of the same year.

According to Antonin Proust, the idea of the picture suggested itself to Édouard Manet when they were watching bathers at Argenteuil. Édouard Manet was reminded of Giorgione's Concert Champêtre and rather than attempting to revive 'great painting' he tries to repeat the theme in clearer color and with modern personnel. There is the Old Master technique in the element of a formal arrangement of characters however Manet has ostensibly set the stage in the open-- there are various hints and suggestions in light and color of fresh possibilities in open-air painting. We know at first that the artist had Giorgione's Pastoral Symphony in mind as his source for Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. A closer likeness of composition has been found in an engraving by Marcantonio of a group of river gods, after a now lost original by Raphael of The Judgement of Paris. Manet was following the example of others, a technique of the Academy of Fine Art. Gustave Courbet during his time urged painters to keep their work modern to paint their own people and their own images. It is not so far fetched that Manet would choose this subject matter; he painted what was relevant to him. By putting most of what was expected in a painting suitable for the L'Academie Francaise, i.e. a nude, figures in a landscape, still-life, and on the scale of history painting (this last point really irritated the critics!). Manet may have pushed the envelop of tradition, but he wanted his works accepted in the traditional way. Actually, it's quite amazing that Bouguereau's nudes were considered acceptable and Manet's were not.

Nothing in the foreground is figures is heroic. In reality, all of the figures are based on living identifiable people in Manet's life. The seated nude was Victiorne Meurand (Manets' favorite model at the time) and the gentlemen were his brother Eugéne (with cane) and his brother-in-law, the sculpter Ferdinand Leenhof. The two men attired in fashionable Parisian wear of the 1860's, and the nude in the forefront is not only a distressingly un-idealized figure type, but she seems distubingly unabashed and at ease, looking directly at the observer without shame or flirtatiousness. Manet loved women and in his works, he usually leaves the men's faces blurred or undefined, their individuality blurred in rhetoric, as dismissible as the "others" in the background. Always one to try to keep within the lines of "accepted" art since he was a semi-important member of society, hence, he left the men clothed.

The detractor's and public disliked Édouard Manet's subject matter only slightly less that the method he used to present his figures. The landscape and the background pool, in which a second woman bathes, are softly focused and painted broadly compared to the clear forms of the harshly lit trio in the forefront along with the loose plie of discarded female garmets and picnic foods in the lower left. Only the bare reality and the sustenance, lunch, has meaning. The lighting illuminates a powerful contrast between darks and highlighted, areas found in many photographs of the time. The main figures are blotted out; in a 'crowding of the lights' and a compensation made with 'crowding of the darks', summing up many values in one or two lights or darks. The effect is to flatten the form and to give it the hard, snapping presence, similar to that in early photography. The paint reports to the viewer what is given to the eye, without any presuppositions of contour, form or structure. Form is no longer a matter of line, only a function of light and paint.

Édouard Manet, himself declared that the chief actor in the painting is the light. The public and critics, guardians of public tatse saw only a sketch without the customary "finish."

Manet also addresses the power of the artist to create reality. The one man's hand is pointing towards the woman and he is paraphrasing Michelangelo's "God Creates Man" fresco. He is saying the artist creates reality in the same way that God does. This is the major lesson of Impressionism. Reinterpreted, Manet again says , 'God created man, but the artist creates Woman' and may well be the the reason for the candor of model Victorine Meurent's knowing (yet somehow alienated) gaze. Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, a manifesto of modern painting, has always proven problematic when it comes to critical and historical interpretation. At the time of its succes de scandale at the Salon des Refusés, one critic admitted that he searched "in vain for the meaning" of it. Since that time, various readings have been suggested, none of them definitive. . . The furious outcry it caused as the principal exhibit among the Salon rejects was based on this alleged indecency. One holistic critic, doubtless voicing his own opinion, said,

A commoplace woman of demimonde, as naked as can be, shamelessly lolls between two dandies dressed to the teeth. These latter look like schoolboys on a holiday, perpetuating an outrage to play the man. . . . . This is a young man's practical joke--a shameful, open sore.

Manets' art would have been readily accepted if he had depicted the figures as nymphs or satyrs is Classical dress or undress, as did his comtemporary Bouguereau. Actually, it's quite amazing that Bouguereau's nudes were considered acceptable and Manet's were not. But in Le Déjeuner Manet has chosen to raise the veils of illusion and reverie, and bluntly confront the public with reality. It is even possible to conjecture that the work is a pastiche of academic genres designed to illustrate how irrelevant academic art had become to modern experience. Manet's Déjeuner has found a ready audience in a postmodern world Roland Barthes once referred to the idea of withholding of meaning, of a semiosis without closure, as an alternative to political opposition. His comments seem relevant to both Manet's painting and its current reception:

"I don't believe that a literature of the left is possible. A problematic literature, yes, that is a literature of suspended meaning: an art which provokes answers but which doesn't give them."

Throughout his entire career, Manet suffered the hositlity of the critics as the surrogates of the public. Their attitude wounded him deeply. Unable to understand their animosity, he continued to seek their approval, and yet the doses of the real he put forth in his art were too harsh. His work in realism was percieved as a real moral threat by the public.

Selected References

CCA Reviews:

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Webmuseum, Paris:

This and other paintings by Édouard Manet may be seen at

Mark Hardens Atrchive:

For more nodes about art and artists see
Realism and Impressionism

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