Often hailed as the father of Modern Art, Édouard Manet was born on this day 182 years ago.
Also considered one of the most important painters of the 19th century, he submitted a controversial painting called Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, or Luncheon on the Grass, at the Salon des Refusés in 1863.
This is the pivotal painting that changes the course of painting – indeed, art in general – from the old world to a new, Modern world.
Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863
How? Why, I’m glad you asked!
First, Manet paints a subject that at first glance shocks the viewer in both 19th century standards as well as today’s (in some circles) by placing a well-known model in a recognizable park in Paris, picnicking in the buff with two recognizable men – one of Manet’s brothers and a sculptor.
Second, he “borrows” his composition from an Old Master, Raphael.
Here is the Judgment of Paris, an engraving by Italian artist Marcantonio Raimondi, who created this particular image under the direction of Raphael. If you will look to the right lower corner of the image, there are three reclining figures; Manet borrows this part of Raphael’s original image to create his still-controversial Luncheon on the Grass.
- From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/19.74.1
By copying from the Old Masters, Manet very slyly and yet pointedly lines himself up with tradition; he is not breaking tradition, he’s just reinterpreting it from his [pre-] Modern perspective.
Of course, at the time, he didn’t call it Modern, but today we recognize that this image is the window from the past (traditional) world bringing us into the Modern era. Manet simply legitimizes his work by linking it to the past, and Luncheon on the Grass is thus seen as a logical continuum of art rather than as arbiter of a haphazard shift in painting, which is what most people/critics thought about the work (and the artist) at the time.
Now that we’ve established that Manet is indeed a part of the historical canon, carrying on the tradition of innovation in the art world, let’s see what he did in this work that is so revolutionary.
Stay with me here: Manet actually softens the blow of his shocking artwork by placing the nude woman in the foreground of his image.
The real shock is not the subject – not the unapologetic “naked lady” who sits in a public park known by everyone to be a playground for those actively involved in the work of the world’s oldest profession – but the manner in which Manet applies the paint on the canvas.
What do I mean?
Just that – that there is not a nude woman lounging in the park with two clothed men.
It’s simply paint on a canvas.
Additionally, there is no precise use of perspective in the painting; there is no real fore-, middle-, or background. Instead, Manet applies the paint in such broad swaths of pure color that the image itself becomes flat, fictional – not natural, pictorial, or academic. Not traditional.
The woman in the distance, with the rowboat – she is not painted realistically in terms of her spatial proportions. If naturalistic, she would be much smaller, and in the water with the rowboat! Instead, she is sort of…floating, as it were, in the blurry background of the painting.
Our discomfort with the “naked” woman would be assuaged if she were clothed, or if the men were nude as well. But the real tension comes not from lack of clothes or the abundance of flesh, but from this blatant disregard for one-point and aerial perspective – long the hallmarks of the Western tradition of painting, from Greco-Roman art through the art of Giotto and up until Manet.
And so with just a few strokes of pure, unmodeled color, Manet renders tradition obsolete.
Because the point he’s trying to make is that it’s not natural – it’s just PAINT ON A CANVAS! Nothing more, nothing less. Subject is arbitrary. Doesn’t matter what you paint – it’s all just paint!
So, to very briefly sum up Manet’s innovations in this work:
– It’s not a nude woman sitting with two men, it’s paint on a canvas;
– Subject matter is then arbitrary;
– Spatial verity is then irrelevant because it’s just paint on a canvas;
– And so finally, Truth is found not in the successful rendering of a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface, but in the separate truth of the materials themselves: paint and canvas.
The Formalist approach to art is born with Manet and his Luncheon on the Grass, and this is why he is considered the Father of Modern art.