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The Scandal Behind Édouard Manet’s ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’

Hailed as the first modern painting, Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass was as scandalous as it was revolutionary. Portraying an ordinary scene of everyday life on a scale previously reserved for great historical or mythological compositions, Manet rejected the conventions of classical painting to forge a path toward Modernism. In this article, Singulart dissects the scandal behind Manet’s masterpiece and its influence on the history of art. 

Who was Édouard Manet? 

Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was a French modernist painter born in Paris to a wealthy family. He was expected to pursue a respectable career in law but instead followed the encouragement of his uncle and became a painter. From 1850 to 1856 he trained under the academic painter Thomas Couture and complemented his education by copying the Old Masters exhibited at the Louvre. During this time he also traveled extensively around Germany, Italy and the Netherlands and was influenced by the work of artists like Frans Hals, Diego Velazquez and Francisco Jose de Goya.

Manet’s work bridged the gap between Realism and Modernism. He was inspired by the works of the realist painter Gustave Courbet in his early works but soon came to reject the conventions of painting leading to masterpieces such as Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass (both painted in 1863). Indeed, although Manet considered himself a realist, his radical style and subject matter has seen him classed as both the father of Impressionism and a pioneer of modernism. He was close friends with many of the impressionist painters during his lifetime and although his work was often ridiculed and widely mocked by contemporary critics, he was also supported by other creative minds of his time such as Emile Zola and Charles Baudelaire. Today his work holds an essential place in the history of art as the starting point of Modernism. 

Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet, photographed by Nadar in 1874.

The Scandal behind The Luncheon on the Grass

The Luncheon on the Grass was rejected from the 1863 Salon and exhibited instead at the Salon des Refusés where it caused great scandal. However, to contemporary eyes it may not be immediately evident what about this painting was so shocking to the audience of 1863. The Luncheon on the Grass depicts four figures, two male and two female, lounging in a landscape setting. A picnic basket is discarded in the foreground along with one of the female’s clothes, leaving her sitting naked between the two men. The men appear to be in the midst of a discussion from which she is excluded, so she stares out to the viewer. Behind them, the second female bathes herself in a pool of water. This composition certainly remains puzzling even to twenty first century viewers, as one can’t help but wonder as to the reason behind her nudity, relaxed demeanor, and the two men’s seeming disinterest. The reason behind the painting’s scandal lies in its historical context and Manet’s treatment of the subject matter, scale and composition. 

Manet’s inspiration for The Luncheon on the Grass 

Manet’s inspiration for the composition of The Luncheon on the Grass supposedly came from two sixteenth century Italian paintings. The first is Titian’s Pastoral Concert, exhibited in the Louvre, from which Manet took the idea of contrasting clothed male figures with nude females, one of whom is also bathing. The second is The Judgement of Paris, a scene from Greek mythology, from which Manet took inspiration for the figure’s reclining positions and gestures. However, these classical references are overshadowed by Manet’s clear refusal of other painterly conventions. 

Pastoral Concert, usually attributed to Titian, is a suggested inspiration for Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass.

Painting Modern Life 

Similarly to the Impressionists, Manet took inspiration for his subject matter from real life, implying consequently that the figures in the painting were also taken from real life. Indeed both Zola and Baudelaire praised Manet for finally daring to depict modern life and to modernize classical painting. Baudelaire named him  ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ in his 1859 essay. The male figures are thought to be based on one of Manet’s brothers, and the Dutch sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff. The nude female is thought to be Victorine Meurent, who was also Manet’s model for Olympia. It was not Manet’s portrayal of a nude woman that shocked the viewers, but rather the lack of mythological or allegorical context as was the conventional justification for depicting a nude woman. Furthermore, to the viewer of 1863, the male figures are clearly dressed as students or flaneurs, seemingly placing the presence of a nude woman in this context as a prostitute. Their location in this park is also said to be inspired by Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, reputed for its connection with prostitution. 

Manet’s rejection of classical conventions 

The Luncheon on the Grass is painted on a 81.9×104.1 inch canvas, a scale that was usually reserved for important historical or mythological compositions. By portraying an ordinary scene on this scale, Manet blatantly rejects the conventions of classical painting. This is not the only convention he rejects. The Luncheon on the Grass exemplifies Manet’s style, at the time criticized for its flatness and disregard for perspective. Indeed, upon close inspection, one notices the lack of transition between the light and dark elements of the composition and the hasty fluid quality of the brushstrokes, creating brutal contrasts and a certain flatness. This flatness is further enhanced by a lack of traditional linear perspective, most clearly demonstrated by the scale of the woman bathing in the background. Seemingly she is set further back from the group in the foreground, however she is almost the same size as these figures and almost touches the raised hand of the male figure to the right. These were deliberate decisions by Manet, whose disregard for creating an illusion of three-dimensional reality as painting was supposed to have ultimately formed the core of modernist painting. 

Olympia, an oil painting by Edouard Manet.
Olympia by Édouard Manet, also painted in 1863.

Manet and the birth of Modernism

Manet is often considered as the forefather of Modernism. The American art critic Clement Greenberg argued that the crux of modernism lay in art using its own methods to criticize itself. Thus Greenberg argued that painting’s critique of itself lay in drawing attention to the limitations of the medium, specifically the rectangular form of the support, the properties of the pigment and the flatness of the painted surface. For Greenberg, flatness was the most important limitation as it was unique to painting. Subsequently Manet, by distancing himself from the illusions of classical painting and drawing attention to painting’s flatness, paved the way for Modernism. 

On Singulart, we’ve carefully curated a collection of works based on Manet’s groundbreaking style. Take a peek:

Cover Image: The Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet.

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