The woman’s pale body is starkly lit as she looks directly at the viewer. In front of them is a basket of fruit and bread. A scantily clad female bathing in a stream is in the background of the painting, which is set outdoors amidst trees. The figure appears to float above the conversing men and the seemingly ignored naked woman beside them.
Originally titled ‘Le Bain’ (‘The Bath’), the painting measures 208 by 264.5 centimetres (81.9 by 104.1 inches) and is on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The large scale of the painting was generally reserved for religious, mythological or historical subjects. Manet’s depiction of a mundane or everyday social activity went against how large canvas was traditionally used.
His technique also contrasted with his contemporaries. The scale of the bathing woman, for example, is too large in comparison to the figures in the foreground. The brush strokes are also rough and unhidden, giving the appearance that the painting is unfinished in some parts. The background also lacks depth, as if the piece was painted in a studio rather than outdoors. Even the nude is not as smooth or flawless as other paintings created during the same period.
Closer study of the figures in the painting reveal significant hidden meaning and connections with Manet and his life. The landscape is believed to represent l’île Saint-Ouen, a location on the River Seine close to Manet’s family property in Gennevilliers. It was also not uncommon for the painter to use real models and people when creating his works. The man on the right is based on the Manet’s brothers, Eugène and Gustave. The man on the left is based on Ferdinand Leenhoff, Manet’s brother-in-law and a Dutch sculptor. The female nude is likely Victorine Meurend, a favourite model used by the painter including for his later painting Olympia (1865).
One of the main discussion points about ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ is how the figures in the painting interact with each other. More specifically, the figures seem to largely not acknowledge or interact with one another except the two men.
The nude woman also appears to engage the viewer by looking directly out at the world beyond the painting. Whether she is challenging or acknowledging the viewer, the reason for her gaze is not entirely clear. The figures are also created with different techniques and styles, while the woman bathing is at a different scale entirely. The painting contrasts naked with the clothed, masculine with feminine qualities, and a white colour palette of the female nudes with the dark colours of the clothes men.
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe resembles Manet’s other famous work, ‘Olympia’. Beyond the use of the same model, the portrait also features a nude woman staring at her viewers. The apinting was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Manet’s inspiration for ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ was also the work of the Old Masters, particularly Marcantonio Raimondi’s ’The Judgement of Paris’ (1515).
The engraving was itself based on a drawing by Raphael, an artist celebrated by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Another piece that influenced Manet was ‘The Pastoral Concert’ (c. 1509-10), a Renaissance painting created by Titian or Giorgione. The painting depicts two fully dressed men sitting along with two naked women in a wooded area, very much like Manet’s painting. ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ also resembles ‘The Tempest’ (1508) by Giorgione, which also contrasts a nude woman and a dressed man in a rural setting. It is also similar to Jean Antoine Watteau’s work, particularly ‘Le Villageoise’.
At the same time, Manet depicts a vulgar scene of Parisians enjoy the outdoors instead of recreating a mythological scene favoured by the Old Masters. The painting was rejected by the Salon jury in 1863. That year, Manet exhibited ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ at the Salon des Refusés. ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ sparked controversy and received mixed reviews from critics when it was first showcased, largely because of the confusion it caused about the meaning behind the piece. The loose technique also led contemporary critics to comment that the painting was underdeveloped, uneven, and lacked definition. Émile Zola, an early supporter of Manet’s work, celebrated the painting and felt it was one of the artist’s best works.
Zola saw Manet’s work as modern and used the controversy about ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ as the basis for his novel ‘L'Œuvre’ (‘The Work’ or ‘The Masterpiece’). In the novel, a painter’s work that resembles Manet’s painting is rejected by a fictional Salon. The painting also inspired several works by other artists, including Claude Monet’s ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ (1865-66) and Paul Cézanne’s ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ (1876-66). Cézanne’s painting features a clothed female posing in a similar manner as Manet’s subject. A male figure also mirrors the hand gesture of the man sitting on the right of Manet’s painting. James Tissot’s ‘La Partie Carrée’ (1870) depicts a similar scene although without the nudity of Manet’s painting. Pablo Picasso also used some of Manet’s techniques when creating nudes, including for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Édouard Manet was born in 1832 into an affluent and connected family. While his parents discouraged artistic pursuits, the French painter was encouraged by his uncle. Manet was known for illustrating everyday life in his paintings, including rural and city scenes of people engaged in ordinary social activities. He is known for bridging the transition between Realism and Impressionism. ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ and ‘Olympia’ are two of the artist’s most famous works and help define Manet as a modern and even revolutionary painter. By the time of his death in 1883, Manet had created some 420 paintings.