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Manet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe

Édouard Manet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), oil on canvas, 1863 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Musée d'Orsay, looking at déjeuner sur l'herbe, Luncheon on the grass. - [Beth] By Manet, although it didn't originally have that title. It's first title was The Bath. - [Steven] And there is really neither bathing-- - [Beth] (laughs) - [Steven] Nor a luncheon going on. There is a woman in the distance in the water. There is some fruit and a brioche, a roll, in the foreground, so perhaps a remnant of a lunch, but that's not what this painting is about. - [Beth] But, it's very difficult to determine precisely what this painting is about and I think that's part of the point. The painting was exhibited, not at the official salon, sanctioned by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the authority for art. Instead this was exhibited at the The Salon des Refusés. - [Steven] The The Salon des Refusés was set up by Emperor Napoleon III, because so many works of art had been excluded from the official salon. But even though this painting was in the exhibition of rejected artwork, it still caused a storm of controversy, based both on what was being portrayed, but also its painting technique, how it was portrayed. - [Beth] These figures are clearly modern, Parisian figures. - [Steven] And that's the problem. - [Beth] They're not set far away in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, or set back in time. These are figures clearly wearing fashionable Parisian clothing, except of course the nude woman, which is the other part of the problem. - [Steven] By placing a woman who is nude in this context, and because she's not veiled or distanced by mythology, she's not a nymph in a classical grove, she is actually a recognizable figure. This is Manet's model, Victorine Meurent, and because the two men are also recognizable figures, there is an immediacy here, that creates a degree of discomfort for the viewer. - [Beth] These figures don't look idealized, they don't look timeless, they look like actual people you would see on the streets of Paris. The other significant problem with these three figures, is that no one seems to be truly interacting. The nude female figure looks directly out at us in a gaze that is very non-chalant, and yet very direct. - [Steven] Which is also breaking with tradition. In the rare instances where a nude female figure would look out toward the audience, it might be with a coy look. But here there is a figure that's returning the viewer's gaze. - [Beth] And then we have the two male figures, the figure on the right gestures toward the figure in the center, but the figure in the center seems to gaze absently out of the painting and doesn't seem to return the figure on the right's gesture and conversation. And then we have this odd figure in the background, who's spatially too large for where she should be in the middle ground. - [Steven] There are all kinds of spatial problems here that Manet has built in. These are not happenstance, these are purposeful. For example, the woman in the background seems to reach down to scoop something out of the water, but in fact she seems to be reaching down to the thumb of the man in the foreground, collapsing the last traces of the illusion of depth. - [Beth] We also have figures who are rendered very flatly, so for example the nude female figure is not modeled with that lovely movement from light to dark that would give her a sense of three-dimensionality that is typical of representations of the female nude historically. Critics noted that she seemed to have a kind of studio lighting about her instead of the natural outdoor light of where she's located. - [Steven] There is some minor modeling around the breast, under the thigh, but for the most part she looks like she's a flat cutout. - [Beth] And even those shadows are very dark, there's almost a sense of her being outlined in dark grays and blacks instead of the lovely, soft modeling. Overall the handling of paint, whether we're looking at the grass in the foreground, or the meadow in the distance, it's incredibly loosely brushed. There's no sense of finish, and for paintings that were approved by the jury for the Royal Academy, having a painting that was really worked on, where there was no sense left of the hand of the artist, that was the priority, and Manet's just flagrantly disregarding that. We also have a figure who seems naked, and not nude, and that's because we have her discarded clothing, including her hat in the foreground, and the fact that she's wearing a kind of ribbon. So, we feel as though she's a modern Parisian woman who has discarded her clothing, and not Venus, born nude naturally from the sea. - [Steven] She's not an allegorical figure, she's not a mythological figure, she's somebody who has taken off her dress. - [Beth] Manet is very consciously drawing on the tradition of art history here. - [Steven] He understood traditional art, he had copied paintings at the Louvre. - [Beth] And so, this painting is based directly on at least two sources, a painting that was thought to be by Giorgione, now understood to be by Titian in the Louvre, which similarly shows two clothed male figures and two nude female figures in a beautiful landscape. - [Steven] Le déjeuner sur l'herbe is also inspired by a work by Raphael that Manet had seen through an engraved copy, showing the Judgment of Paris, and in the lower right corner of that engraving were two river gods and a nymph, and it was that composition that Manet has borrowed. - [Beth] So, we can easily understand the reactions of the French public in 1863 when they went to the Salon des Refusés. In fact, Manet was cultivating their confusion. This refusal to tell a story, is a refusal to do precisely what the Academy and especially the art-going public wanted from a painting. - [Steven] Manet's teasing his viewers. He's giving all of the indications that there's a narrative, and yet not including that narrative, and so the subject is no longer what is being enacted but rather the act of creating a work of art itself. The choices that he's making as an artist, to his brushwork, to his composition. - [Beth] He is making a challenge to the authorities that controlled art in France, and making a strong declaration, "I am the one who "makes these decisions for my art." - [Steven] And that forceful declaration will have a tremendous impact on the development of modernism in the late 19th century, and into the 20th century. (jazzy piano music)