(Picture courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art, public domain wikipedia.)
The painting has probably been presented to you in many ways, but to me it is summer and living easy, as well as being an epochal work of art that blew the collective mind of the art world of its time. Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe will always stand out as comment and execution of the world Édouard Manet envisioned idyllically.
In 1863, Manet shocked the French public by exhibiting his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”). It is not a realist painting in the social or political sense of Daumier, but it is a statement in favor of the artist’s individual freedom. The shock value of a nude woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men, which was an affront to the propriety of the time, was accentuated by the familiarity of the figures. Manet’s wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, and his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, both posed for the nude woman, who has Meurent’s face, but Leenhoff’s plumper body. Her body is starkly lit and she stares directly at the viewer. The two men are Manet’s brother Gustave Manet and his future brother-in-law, Ferdinand Leenhoff. They are dressed like young dandies. The men 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 “photographic” light, which casts almost no shadows; the lighting of the scene, in fact, is inconsistent and unnatural. The man on the right wears a flat hat with a tassel, of a kind normally worn indoors.
Despite the mundane subject, Manet deliberately chose a large canvas size, normally reserved for historical 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, indeed, looks unfinished in some parts of the scene. The nude is a far cry from the smooth, flawless figures of Cabanel or Ingres.
We hardly can help feeling the glee the artist had to feel in his concept, and execution, of the contentment in nudity that is always going to make the watcher uncomfortable. His posed subjects show and elegance and appeal that tells the viewer they are in a better state than our own, and make us want to enter it as well.
According to Emile Zola: “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.” Zola wrote a novel, l’Oeuvre, about the painting and its impact.
There were artistic variations on the original painting, one by Paul Cezanne that is intriguing, and supportive of Manet who was much critiqued for the painting. Cezanne’s work is in the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.
(Picture courtesy of artistic commons in wikipedia.)