I would like to tell you the famous story of the Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet, now on view in the Musée d’Orsay.
It was made in the second half of the 19th century (1863 to be precise), which was a complicated time for artists. All of them wanted to be accepted by the Salon (the official exhibitions for the Academy of Fine Arts) but judges were rejecting more and more artists. Therefore, in 1863, Napoléon III accepted the creation of the Salon des refusés (exhibition of rejects). The Déjeuner sur l’herbe was the main attraction in this exhibition, mostly for mockery and scandal. On the other side of the room, he showed the Young man in the costume of a Majo and Mademoiselle V… in the costume of an Espada.
Manet used the monumental format, which was mostly used for the history painting, to popularize this format. On the left, we can see the meal which has a still nature on the foreground. A naked woman is there and she looks at us. The model is Victorine Meurent, a young prostitute who was also the model for Mlle V. en costume d’Espada and Olympia. Next to her, there are two fully clothed men. They are Eugène Manet (the artist’s brother) and Ferdinand Leenhoff (the artist’s brother-in-law). Those men are both represented as students by the hats they are wearing. In the background, a young woman gets out of a little pond.
For his painting, Manet was inspired by two paintings in the Louvre: The Pastoral Concert by Titian (for the subject) and an engraving representing the Judgment of Paris from Raimondi after Raphael (for the position of the group). However in Manet’s painting, the presence of the naked woman is not justified by any myth or allegory. This scene was obscene to Manet’s contemporaries. The painter was actually playing with that cord by nicknaming his painting “La partie carrée” which was the name of a sexual group game.
In this painting, Manet emphasizes the woman’s nudity by the luminosity. He gave up the color gradation for brutal contrasts, and he uses a rough touch. The style and the technique Manet used shocked people almost as much as the subject. The characters do not seem to be integrated in this decor which is more sketched than painted. The perspective is forgotten and there is no depth. The woman in the back looks too tall according to the scale, especially next the boat. The horizon is really high such as in a Japanese print. Manet doesn’t respect any conventions in this painting, but instead gives a new freedom to the subject and the representation.
The Déjeuner sur l’herbe was mocked and judged at lot. However, it is one of the Manet’s chef-d’oeuvre and we had to wait until 1904 to have it in the French national collection and then exhibited in a museum.