Canvassing the Masterpieces: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet
1863 is an important year in the history of art. For the first time, paintings that did not respect the Academy’s standards and rules were exhibited in the Salon des Refusés. Edouard Manet was granted the right to hang three of his paintings, one of which was his famous Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. A father of Impressionism, his work caused scandal and represented an intentional break with the Classical principles. In this week’s edition of “Canvassing the Masterpieces”, KAZoART takes you back to one of the most raunchy yet relevant works of the 19th Century.
A lunch like no other
If Manet’s goal was to shock the artistic circles of 19th Century Paris, he couldn’t have chosen a better way to do so. He presented them with a painting of unprecedented vulgarity that was exhibited with decadence and style. The subject matter, however, was far from realistic.
Framed in a theatrical and fictional setting, Manet plays out his fantasy as four characters converse over lunch. They seem to be enjoying a moment of quietude in the heart of a forest. In spite of the natural setting, our eyes are inevitably drawn to the young woman who sits naked, surrounded by two men. At a time when pictorial art only allowed for the feminine nude to be depicted in connection with myths and allegories, Manet re-contextualises the worn out and overdone subject matter. He thus refreshed the concept of female nudity in art. What’s more, he revealed the hypocrisy behind the public’s acceptance of a fictitious female nude and their rejection of a female nude in an everyday setting.
4 Details you don’t want to miss
1. Victorine, complacent yet complicit
Victorine, an emblematic figure in the painting, is a recurring model for Manet. She appears nude in his painting, Olympia which was also shown at the Salon des Refusés. Somewhat confined by the trees and male figures, she gazes out at the viewer, assuming a look of absolute complacency. It is neither an invitation nor permission, she is simply recognising our presence.
Bathed in light and draped in a soft blue garment, she is in clear juxtaposition with the two men around her, Ferdinand Leenhoff and Eugène Manet. Their clothes are jet black and they seem wholly unaware of the viewer. The pose of this unlikely trio was inspired by Raphael’s Judgement of Paris wherein the figures in the bottom right corner rest gracefully, almost poetically, despite the chaos around them.
2. Delicious food and scattered clothing
Evoking a notion of sensuality, the scene we are allowed to view appears calm and tranquil. However, the overturned basket and strewn garments suggest that this was not previously the case. Now that the implied deed has been done, a certain serenity falls over the painting. Juggling styles, Manet has portrayed the fruit basket in such a way that it could be detached from the painting and become a still-life all on its own.
3. A rather awkward bather
Alexandrine Zola, wife of Emile Zola, is supposed to be the bather in the background. It is said that she was a friend of Manet’s. Wearing a tunic, she bathes herself in the river. Unlike the other three characters in his painting, Alexandrine is the only one with strangely-proportioned features.
According to the laws of perspective, there is a major problem here. Given her distance from the group, the bather should be significantly smaller than the other three figures. There are many theories about why this is. Some say that she was part of another painting. Others look at the man with the hat and cane and say that the positioning of his hand (thumb and index finger) indicate that she and the seated nude are in fact the same person. All of these are of course, only speculative.
What we do know, however, is that when Manet first named this painting, it was called The Bather (La Baigneuse in French) but no one understood the reason for his title. He then changed it to its present title, inciting further shock and fascination.
4. The frog and the bird
Did you notice them? They’re not necessarily visible at first sight and yet their presence here is very important. In the upper-central part of the painting we see a red bullfinch in mid-flight. And then in the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas, a small frog faces outwards.
There is a difference in technique between the bird, who is painted with great care, and the frog, on whom there are visible brushstrokes. This is because Manet did not spend much time painting the frog as he sits motionless in the corner. Whereas the bird soars above and requires precision and a realistic distribution of colour. Scholars often debate their role in this piece. Many believe that the bullfinch invites the spectators to open their eyes as he hovers over the scene. And the frog on the other hand, refers to a nickname given to 19th century prostitutes.
Artistic exploration or intentional provocation?
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe dabbles in tradition and modernity. But in Manet’s day, not many were convinced by his libertarian art. There is also a paradox to note. In one sense, the painting is flat and the landscape’s rendering is poor. Manet endured major criticism for its sloppiness and lack of attention to detail. In contrast, there is an overwhelming realism in Victorine’s eyes. Her entire expression draws us in and piques our curiosity.
Manet clearly enjoyed presenting his lewd artwork that combined portrait, landscape and still-life styles all in a large-scale canvas. The artist’s clear tones, contrasting subjects and voyeuristic posture gave rise to what Emile Zola called “his greatest painting.”
Manet-inspired work on KAZoART – Régine Pivier-Attolini
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