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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.
Video transcript
We're at the Musee d'Orsay, in front of Manet's famous painting, "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe," or "Luncheon on the Grass," which was exhibited at the Salon des Refuses in 1863. It was exhibited there because the painting was rejected when the artist submitted it to the traditional salon. In fact, that year there were so many artists who were rejected that Napoleon III opened something called the "Salon des Refuses," or the salon of refused or rejected works. And this work was the focal point of the Salon des Refuses for the critics. This is a painting that is very much a kind of taunt. And very much, I think, an attempt to break as many rules as the artist can. It breaks formal rules. It breaks compositional rules. It breaks rules of subject. The composition was borrowed from a print after Raphael. There was a tapestry by Raphael that was lost. So the composition is borrowed from a traditional source. And the subject matter, nude women with clothed men, in an idyllic landscape, is borrowed from a painting by Giorgione in the Louvre. The problem is that this is not a Venus. The problem is this is not a classical context. The problem is this is modern France, perhaps a park, perhaps the Bois de Boulogne. Not only is she not a goddess, but she is a specific person. Manet's model, Victorine Meurent, and she looks very much like a real person that you would see walking down the streets of Paris fully clothed. And worse, she's looking at us. That is to say, that she is not even in a sense giving us the sort of opportunity to gaze on her with a kind of coyness. But she is actually confronting us directly. The men who she sits with who are fully clothed don't look at her and don't look at us at all. So there is this assumption of sexuality, but in a non-classicizing manner, and yet at the same time it's so matter of fact that it feels totally desexualized. On the other hand there are all these clues about sensuality and sexuality. We have in the lower left a very sensual still life of fruit and bread and a flask with some alcoholic beverage in it. And that lies on top of the clothing that she's discarded. The original title of this painting was "The Bath." So she's not a nymph that lives in a mythological forest who's always naked. But she's a modern woman who's taken off her dress. She's not nude. She's naked. This painting is breaking lots of rules when it comes to subject. But it is also breaking lots of rules when it comes to the way in which the painting was actually made. If you look at the very bright flesh of the female figure, she is so bright and so heavily outlined, and I shouldn't say outlined. But she is surrounded by darker tones. So that she actually seems somewhat flattened, doesn't she? And the internal modulation of tone that you would expect to see in a 19th century painting of this sort is absent. So that some might have looked at this and seen her almost as a kind of two-dimensional cutout. And worse than that, there are other ways in which Manet is in a sense breaking the rules that one followed at that point to create naturalism. For instance, look at the way the ribbon in her hair which is so dark, and the darkness of the hair itself, mesh with the darkness of the bush that is many feet in back of her and kind of collapse that space. We really have no sense of the distance between the figure we see in the background who is emerging from the water. The other female figure. She almost seems too large. Well, especially since her hands, which are so small, because of the distance, seems to actually be reaching down to the man's thumb. And there is this terrible kind of disjunction. Right, a kind of collapsing of space. Yeah, and scale, and in a sense, of the rules of illusionism that Manet seems to be inviting the destruction of. He seems to be sort of willfully and playfully undermining the very rules of the academy. And at the same time, there is all of this pleasure that one senses in paint, in applying paint in this kind of very loose brushwork that is very sensual, especially the blue of her clothing and the still life or the gray pants and white pants worn by the male figures. Manet had been looking at people like Velazquez and others where the brush becomes critically important and he's very interested clearly in us not only seeing what is being depicted, but seeing the means by which it was depicted. Seeing the paint itself refusing to give us that perfect illusion that had been really the foundation of western painting since the time of the Renaissance. The other thing that is so odd about it, right, is you have all of this loose Velazquez handling of paint, but then you move into the background and you get paint that seems like it's been very diluted and applied in a way that's very much like a wash or a stain, especially where the trees and field behind that female figure. And then on the other hand there is clumps of paint in the trees. So there is all these kinds of different handling of the paint itself. It is, in a sense, a dismantling of the expectations of art at this moment. And it's reminding me of Baudelaire's talking about the painting of modern life and the painting of the modern nude. Let's forget about Venuses. We don't live in Ancient Greece. Let's paint life today. Where does one find the female nude? Well, sort of Manet made up a theme for modern female nudes. But in a sense it sort of underscores the absurdity of the classical tradition, of the way in which we have clothed the nude in those traditions to make it acceptable. Manet is saying, does this make sense? The illogic of this painting, and the way in which it sort of pushes at social norms is also underscoring the way in which the art that we so readily accept from this period makes no sense. Exactly.