The Le Déjeuner Sur l’herbe, translated in English as ‘The Luncheon on the Grass, is a painting by Edouard Manet (1832-1883), and it was initially titled Le Bain (The Bath). This oil on canvas painting depicts a nude female and a scantily dressed female bather on a picnic with two fully dressed men in a rural setting with a bather in the background.
Edouard Manet was a French modernist painter and artist born on January 23, 1832, in Paris, France, and died on April 30, 1883, in Paris. He is known to be the French painter who broke new ground by defying traditional representation techniques and choosing subjects from his own time’s events and circumstances.
In 1850, Manet entered the studio of the classical and academic painter Thomas Couture. After six years with him, Manet set up a studio that he shared with Albert de Balleroy, a painter of military subjects. During his time with Thomas Couture, he travelled to Germany, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Italy, studying and copying old masters of the art. Often referred to as the father of modern art, his quick and flat painting style paved the way for impressionism, Post-impressionism, and other eras in art, all because of rejecting standards set by the academy. Being one of the artists who aspired to have his work shown in the Salon, he agreed with other modern thinkers that art should depict everyday Life and not just historical events or mythological scenes, emphasizing his desire to paint what he could observe around him. He became known as one of the most prominent artists of modernism. One of Manet’s earlier works, titled ‘The Spanish Singer’, was accepted at the Salon in 1861 and even earned him an honourable mention. The Salon was considered one of the important exhibitions in Europe at the time.
The Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was painted in 1863, and the Salon refused this. Instead, it was shown at the Salon des Refuses, an exhibition of works rejected by the Salon that year. Luncheon on the Grass was heavily criticized, especially by the academic community at the time, because of its lack of accurate perspective and the flatness of light and colour. These ignored the classical tradition of building layers and painting. The community hated the unashamed and blatant nudity of the central figure in the picture seated among recognizable gentleman figures because such a painting was radical for its time, and it stirred up some controversy among the conservatives in the 19th-century art circles who ultimately rejected it.
When the Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was painted, different hierarchies deemed paintings acceptable, especially historical paintings which explored moral and heroic messages with the religious or mythological subject matters and were the ‘highest’ forms of paintings. These were also usually on large canvases because they required artistic skill to depict numerous narratives involving numerous figures. The hierarchies also included Portrait paintings, Genre paintings, Landscape paintings, and Still Life paintings. Therefore, according to the hierarchies of the genres set at that time, people were expected to see specific rules and follow them. Seeing as the “Luncheon on the Grass’ was a large-scale painting depicting several figures, among which was a naked female, it mirrored some elements from history paintings, but at the same time, it seemed not to follow any of the rules established for History painting. It also seems to encompass the genres of portraiture, landscape, and still Life within a single painting.
The leading figure of the Le Déjeuner Sur l’herbe painting is a naked woman in the foreground staring directly at the viewer while two men who are fashionably dressed are caught in conversation. The three figures are complemented by the ‘Still Life’ in the lower left plane, which consists of a fruit basket, a round loaf of bread, and the woman’s clothes. Towards the background, a woman is bathing in a stream or river wearing a diaphanous chemise gown, bending over with her right hand in the water while her head is slightly tilted toward her right side, which is towards the viewers. All the figures appear to be in a forested grove with various trees surrounding them, and the stream mentioned above seems to compose the rest of the background, which then moves outwards to a far and distant landscape. Even with such a background, debates have come up about whether the painting was done indoors or outdoors, given that some elements suggest it occurred outside. At the same time, other aspects denote that it might have been painted inside, in a studio.
Looking at the colour and light of the Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Manet painted his subject matter with loose brushstrokes, almost as if he painted haphazardly. He also took advantage of the idea of dark and light, where he depicted the women in a lighter tone while the men appear darker due to their clothing. The woman staring at the viewer lacks tonal variation as would have been seen in classical paintings, and most of her body is only one color.
The painting is approximately two by two meters, which is why its aspects of scale and perspective have been widely spoken of. The portrayed view between the three figures in the centre and the woman in the background makes the painting appear like it lacks a sense of depth or space between the figures in the painting because the figures in the foreground and background all seem to be at an almost similar scale.
Manet created a new subject matter by painting modern-day elements in Paris, which was a complete shift away from mythological or religious subjects in his time. However much the Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was viewed as scandalous, this new style of painting inspired many avant-garde artists who became known as the impressionists paving the way for a new era in art in the 19th century.
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