Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe or The Luncheon on the Grass is a very well known painting by Edouard Manet created in 1863. Without this painting there wouldn’t be Impressionism and without Impressionism there wouldn’t modern art. Every painting has a story, and I’m going to tell you this one.
Edouard Manet was born in 1832. in Paris. His family was affluent and well-connected. Auguste Manet, his father, being a judge, wanted the same career for his first born but Manet showed interest in art from an early age. He was especially encouraged by his uncle, Edmond Fournier, who took the little boy to Louvre. However, it is rather strange that his conservative father had not opposed his choice of career and in fact financially supported him.
Auguste Manet may have had a secret he did not want the young Manet to discover. Suzanne Leenhoff, a young piano teacher, was employed by Auguste to teach his sons, including Edouard, piano. She may have been Auguste’s mistress, we’ll never know for sure, but in 1852. she gave birth out of wedlock, to a son named Leon whose father may have been either of the Manets. After the death of his father, Manet married Suzanne in 1863.
This painting shows much more than a naked woman having breakfast with two dressed men on a lawn. Described as idiotic, childish, shocking and incoherent by the newspapers, this painting was despised by the audience; they disliked the composition, the nude, the colour scheme, the theme… But the thing that upset them the most was this provocative way that men were dressed and the woman was not. Shocking thing was that this naked lady wasn’t embarrassed about it; quite the contrary, she stares at her audience daring them to disapprove. Almost as if she was accusing them!
Scene depicted on the painting would have been illegal in those days; men having a luncheon with a naked woman who must have been a prostitute, no other women would do that. Imagine her reputation. However, nudity was acceptable when presented in roman style where women were dressed, or undressed as goddesses. That was acceptable, Manet’s painting was shocking.
Perhaps motivated by the hypocrisy of his father, Manet had deliberately painted Luncheon on the grass to mock the old masters, tease the law and false morals and reveal insincerity of the society. To bad that Auguste died a year before this was painted. Perhaps Manet was disappointed in his father whose aura of respectability had no foundation. Who was August to preach about values and morals when in fact he wore a false mask of virtue. This painting expresses Manet’s disappointment with his father and the hypocrisy of the society in general.
Two men on the portrait are Manet’s brother (on the right) and his brother in law, Suzanne’s brother, who are playing roles of an art students when in fact they were a real life artistic types. In those times students loved wearing silly hats and the man on the right is wearing one. Model for a nude lady who is having lunch with two dressed students was Victorine Meurent, a young Parisian girl, model to painters since the age of sixteen and a muse to Edouard Manet. When Manet found her, his art found direction. Victorine appears in many of his paintings such as Olympia, Woman with parrot, Street Singer and The Railway which proved to be her last sitting for Manet.
In the painting’s pyramidal composition we see another lady, in the background, who looks as if she was grabbing a water. Manet is mocking the old masters again for the lady would have been a muse in a mythological scene and here she is shamelessly having a pee. Parisians who lived in those times knew exactly what she was doing, so Manet is realistic in a way, portraying things as they were, not hiding immorality and closing his eyes; he also expressed this is his later painting such as Olympia and Woman with a parrot.
Manet got the idea from the painting by Titian or Giorgione called The pastoral concert where the two man, musicians are dressed and they’re having a lovely afternoon with two nude muses. The mood of the painting is luxurious and sensuous, slightly decadent, whereas Manet depicted typical Parisians from the time, having an orgy and behaving improperly, but sincerely; something that society had lost.
However, the actual composition is based on an engraving Judgement of Paris by Raimondi made on Raphael’s design. That’s called fighting the system from within. Manet used their weapon and shocked the audience with the finished painting. His nude is realistic, a new type of Venus, he portrayed the truth.
Maybe he intended to shock the audience, we’ll never now. However, this painting represents Manet’s loss of faith in society and morals, he felt betrayed by his father who set himself as an example of virtuosity when he was the opposite. With this painting Manet shows that he sees the society as it is; hypocritical and insincere.