Thursday, November 19, 2009

L: le dejeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch in the Grass) by Manet

It has been a little while since I posted the last time. Besides being very busy with life, I have focused a good deal of attention on my other blog and creating illustrations and paintings.

Yesterday, I was working on reupholstering a chair and I had the television on for company. I wandered on to Ovation TV and a program about this painting “Every Picture Tells a Story: Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe.” Art critic Waldemar Januszczak told the story behind this very important painting—a great deal of which I didn’t know.

He described this painting as being one of a few works of art that singly changed the direction of art. Excuse me if I don’t remember the wording exactly and I can’t find the video clip so we will have to rely on my paint-fume affected memory. Anyway, Januszczak indicated that this work caused the stir that directly motivated the Impressionist movement and subsequently modern art, so that is how he supported his contention. Ok.

The painting is one that I have always been curious about since I took a good deal of “art in the dark” in college. But the story he tells is so much more interesting.

The typical art class description follows the lines that I found on Wikipeadia

“In 1863, Manet shocked the French public by exhibiting his 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, which 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 Eugene Manet and his future brother in law, Ferdinand Leenhoff. They are dressed like 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: in fact, the lighting of the scene 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 grander subjects. The style of the painting breaks with the academic traditions of the time. He did not try to hide the brush strokes: indeed, the painting looks unfinished in some parts of the scene. The nude is a far cry from the smooth, flawless figures of Cabanel or Ingres.” (

The same site included a quote from Emile Zola, a great French author of the time:
“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. 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.”

Supportive, but far from what Januszczak describes. I found it interesting to learn the story he relates. There are several references to Masters works in the composition including: Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving The Judgement of Paris (c. 1515) after a drawing by Raphael; The Pastoral Concert, 1508, by Giorgione ;or possibly Titian (in the Louvre); and Giorgione's The Tempest. Januszczak said that these were not so much inspirations as jibes at the old masters, in keeping with the general tone of the work.

He picked apart details from the painting, beginning with the most obvious—the nude. As a background note, Manet’s father was a judge who heard cases of vice. He indicated that the face model, Victorine Meurent, was an artist and a common woman who might have appeared in his father’s court. As with much of the painting, this would be a snipe at his father. I was against the law for men and women to bathe together and people never bathed nude at the time. Again, a shot at the nature of the laws themselves. The description of the men as “dandies” is incorrect. The hat worn by Manet’s brother is the type worn by art students of the time. Januszczak describes this as a joke, accomplished artists presented as students. The woman in the background is seen as gently bathing in the water. He said that French women of the time would go into the water mainly to pee and that fact is not lost in this painting.

Many of the elements of the painting were attacks on society of the time. He also pointed out a frog, which was a nickname for a prostitute, and a bird, which was meant as an attack on organized religion.

I know that I am not doing his description justice, but I enjoyed the story and learning more about the meaning of this confusing composition.