Luncheon on the Grass

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190th anniversary of the birth of Edouard Manet

Oksana Kopenkina, art analyst, founder of the Arts Diary & Pad website

In 1863, Edouard Manet suffered a double defeat. At first, his work “Luncheon on the Grass” was not accepted into the Paris Salon. This was the main exhibition where you could show the public your work.

But that year many were refused. Therefore, Emperor Napoleon III ordered an exhibition for such works. But even there, among the “Les Miserables”, the painting “Luncheon on the Grass” was perceived as the main misunderstanding of the exhibition. It is difficult for the modern viewer to understand what so annoyed everyone in this work back in 1863. Let’s figure it out.

In the foreground, a naked woman sits, having thrown off her bathing dress. Two dressed men are sitting next to her and talking about something. In the background, another woman is washing herself in her undershirt. It seems that Manet did not come up with anything special. However, he violated a very important rule of academic painting. Only deities or ancient heroes could be naked on the canvases. And here the artist depicted his contemporaries, the Parisians. The nude red-haired woman is Victorine Meurent, model and muse of artists. She also later became an artist. Men are the brother of Edouard Manet and the brother of his wife. The bather is the wife of Emile Zola (presumably), a writer and friend of the artist.

For the public, this was outrageous, because the characters played… inhabitants of Paris, who sometimes had fun like this with young women of easy virtue. Manet seemed to put on display the dirty linen of society! Of course, everyone was embarrassed. And as a result – a surge of aggressive attacks on the artist.

This is how Emile Zola describes the reaction of the public: “It seems to me that in the middle of the street I met a gang of boys throwing stones at Edouard Manet’s back …”

By the way, it was in the “Rural Concert” that Manet got the idea to depict dressed men next to naked women. True, Giorgione painted muses. Whereas Manet’s women are real.

Classicists painted nudity for the delight of the eyes. Therefore, the heroine without clothes very rarely looked at the viewer. After all, she is depicted in order to be examined. There is no need to confuse a viewer!

Edouard Manet. Luncheon on the Grass. 1863. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

But sometimes nude women looked into the eyes of a viewer from the canvases. But these were almost always languid and seductive looks. While the heroine Manet looks at us in a completely different way! She is confident and calm. She doesn’t try to seduce. Moreover, she does not look like a woman offended by fate. With the same look, it is quite possible to imagine her in a beautiful dress at a social event. This behavior irritated the public.

Edouard Manet constructed the composition of the painting in a very non-trivial way. There were also many questions about how the artist arranged the characters on the canvas.

To begin with, Manet originally called his painting “The Bather”. That is, the woman in the background is kind of like the main character! This is already strange, since there is a group of people in the foreground. And according to the rules of academic painting, the main character is the closest to a viewer. At a minimum, it is highlighted in colour or size so that all other shapes are perceived as secondary.

The audience still did not understand such an arrangement of the main character of Manet. Therefore, the artist later renamed the painting into “Luncheon on the Grass”.

Also notice how strangely the figure of the bather is positioned. She lowered her hand into the water, but a strange illusion is created. As if she was about to grab the finger of the man in the foreground.

In general, when building a composition, artists always try to avoid such awkward illusions. And a classicist would have moved the bather to the side to avoid this oddity. But Manet did just that on purpose. What for? Because he was for vitality. After all, such oddities arise all the time in reality! Why do everything perfectly?

It immediately strikes us that the bather in the background is too big. It is even larger than the boat, which is not far from it! A classicist would have made the figure smaller, in accordance with the law of linear perspective.

Manet, on the other hand, deliberately went to increase the figure. Remember, he even called the painting “Bather”, emphasizing the important role of women. And it would be strange to portray her small sized in the background.

In addition, Manet was influenced by the work of Japanese masters. In these works, the masters built the space in a slightly different way. Different scenes were placed next to each other, like in a collage. That is, there is no concept of foreground and background at all. And the figures are about the same size.

Manet also violated another rule of perspective. To emphasize the depth of space, a classicist used warm shades of paint for the foreground. And for the back – cool. But Manet does everything almost the other way around! In the foreground is a large, cold spot of a blue dress. But on the far side, the warm ocher shades of the boat and vegetation are burning.

The heroine Manet is the owner of a very white skin of a cool shade. Which, in principle, corresponded to reality. Meurent was red-haired, with the typical white and thin skin of such people. Most of the body is painted in almost the same colour. At the same time, the heroine is realistic! There is no feeling that the woman is cut out of paper and pasted onto the background. So what’s the secret? Manet was very eager for realism. And he showed how direct light behaves in reality when it illuminates a person. In this case, chiaroscuro is almost not formed on the body.

Critics were also outraged that Manet had left all brush strokes visible. Moreover, they are wide, sweeping. This is especially true for the background. This did not at all correspond to people’s ideas about how the painting should look. Manet ignored many details. Trees, grass, water do rather form a single space when one flows into another. But the artist still draws some details. For example, a flying bullfinch at the top of the canvas.

Manet tried to convey the peculiarities of our vision. Something is in focus, and some is not. We cannot see everything clearly at the same time. And in this, too, in fact, there is much more realism than in the works of refined and accurate classicists.

So, we looked at the confrontation between two opponents.

On the one hand, there is academic painting. This is the so-called classical (at that time) art, which is created using certain techniques. They were approved and taught at art academies.

On the other side of the barricades – Edouard Manet, who himself studied at the academy and generally wanted recognition in society. But he chose his own path and went to revise many techniques. The result is “Luncheon on the Grass”.

Edouard Manet is considered to be the one with whom modern art began. “Luncheon on the Grass” is a dividing line between old and new art. This is the moment when the artist renounced almost all the rules of academic painting. And he said “YES” to the opportunity to experiment and go his own way.

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