It seems rather sedate now, almost old fashioned on first glance next to our post-modern sensibilities, but Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”) caused quite a stir when it first appeared in Paris in 1863. Rejected for the Salon, it was shown in the added gallery set aside for spurned pieces. Derision, contempt, and confusion poured from the public and the critics of the day. Just what was this uneven, contrived painting of dressed men and an unseemly common nude woman all about? The usual vocabulary of a painting is convoluted. Many thought it clearly obscene and “unfinished.” Today it hangs in the Musée d’Orsay and is considered a masterpiece and turning point in the world of art.
The first thing to note is that the painting, while breaking free of the classical themes and mythical nudes of Manet's contemporaries, is actually a quotation of an established classic, Raimondi’s 1515 engraving Judgment of Paris.
Look to the right, and there are the water nymphs from whom Manet drew his inspiration.
The second thing to note is the nude woman who captures the attention of the viewer. The lines of the painting all steer our eyes to her, and she in turn looks out at us. She is not bashful. She feels no need to cover herself. Yet, she is not provocative either. Her skin has blemishes and pockets of fat, unlike the painting considered the toast of the salon that year, Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, which shows the female form in an airbrushed, sugary idealization of great skill, and little interest.
The model for the nude woman in Manet's painting was Victorine Meurent, who would go on to be a well-received painter in her own right. She is 18 at the time of the painting, and no doubt many of the artists and the public would have recognized her, and I think that is part of the point of the painting, if this painting can be said to have a point. Instead of taking a model and casting her in a mythological landscape, Manet takes her and puts her with her contemporaries, with two men who are fully dressed in the clothes of the day. The men are a little bohemian, but they still might seem respectable. They are artists, or perhaps critics. They are the very people who are looking at this nude woman in this painting. Perhaps the scandal of the painting was the perception of accusation. “This is you,” Manet says. “You see these women, you idealize them, you display their bodies, but I’m giving you the real thing, not the image.” This is, in short, a painting about art. The grumblings from the public that the image was one of “a prostitute” are more than just reactionary jabber. In the painting, on the left edge past the contrived lunch faire, there is a frog looking in the opposite direction.
“Frog” was the most popular euphemism at the time for prostitute. That too was something the well-heeled men viewing the painting knew a great deal about. Manet himself was involved in many relationships outside of his marriage to a stolid Dutch woman, contracting syphilis in his forties and dying of it in 1883.
The last thing I wish to mention is the afterlife of the painting. Though there are many other paintings with more drama, with more provocative content, this painting was used by several artists since the showing in 1863. Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece takes the painting and its reception as the subject of the story. Picasso, upon first seeing it, remarked that “this is going to cause some trouble later on.” He tackled the work 6o years later, painting numerous interpretations.
An album cover used members of the group Bow Wow Wow, including the 14 year old lead singer, to reenact the painting, creating one of the most distinctive album covers ever.
Countless artists continue to turn to the work in countless ways.
Isn’t that the mark of a masterpiece?