None of us have experienced springtime in lock-down before. Arguably our sensitivity to the seasons has been heightened by the fact that these days, we are not at liberty to roam free….
With spontaneous outings being out-lawed, we can but hope that by the time spring rolls into summer we will be permitted to indulge in the noble tradition of the picnic.
Over the next three weeks, we focus on three famous versions of ‘Dejeuner sur L’Herbe’. This week Edouard Manet’s enigmatic composition is in the frame.
First exhibited at the Salon des Refuses in Paris in 1863, this painting caused a sensation. The flagrant gaze of the naked woman was seen as scandalous, unleashing a storm of unanswerable questions: why was she naked and why did she seem so untroubled by her nudity? Why were both her male companions seemingly oblivious to her unclothed state? What were the men so earnestly discussing? And how did the female bather relate to the picnicking party?
The painting had immediate impact with a troop of young Parisian artists, those who pitted themselves against the formality of the Academie des Beaux Arts. It was shocking and above all challenged the stuffiness of the Academie, breaking new ground. The controversy that surrounded the work fanned attendance numbers; on its first day, the Salon des Refuses received an unprecedented seven thousand visitors. Word had got out ...
Despite the avant-garde accolades, ‘Dejeuner sur L’Herbe’ was in fact a homage to certain key works from the art historical canon. Manet was a frequent visitor to the Louvre, where Giorgione’s magnificent ‘The Pastoral Concert’ (1509) was on display:
Giorgione’s use of the undressed female and clothed male creates tension and drama with such success that Manet determined to employ the device himself. A detail from a print by the virtuoso Italian engraver, Marcantonio Raimondi (1480 -1534) of ‘The Judgment of Paris’ also provided inspiration for the arrangement of the trio of figures:
The dimensions of the painting (81 x 104 inches) were of the same order of size as those favoured by the Academie des Beaux-Arts, a further nod to convention. Manet’s backround and his inherited wealth ensured his credentials within Parisian society. He could turn a critical eye on the Establishment whilst being part of it, a duality echoed in ‘Dejeuner sur L’Herbe’ which is both intimate and challenging.