Art in the time of lockdown #9

Picnic on the Grass

A model afternoon

Performing a ‘one-eighty’ on my inspirational artwork here I am with two male models! Not the usual combination of clothed and unclothed adults we are used to observing. Once again, my fun take on famous artworks brings with it a more serious question about what is acceptable in the artworld.
My thanks for the male models go to BBC’s programme ‘Life Class Live!’.


Edouard Manet (1832-1883) Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass), 1863
When the 1863 Salon jury rejected the painting, Manet exhibited three works, including ‘Déjeuner’, at the Salon des Refusés and it proved controversial from the outset. Too large? Too provocative? Too unconventional? For the public and the critics it didn’t fit the mould of a serious, acceptable artwork. I found that Manet’s original title was ‘Le Bain’ (The Bath), and that he jokingly called it ‘La Partie Carrée’ which translates as ‘The Foursome’.

Story or Statement?

Two fully clothed men sit chatting together in a woodland glade while a naked woman sits with them and a second woman bathes in a sunlit pool in the background, wearing a chemise. There is a hint of luncheon – a tumble of fruits and bread in the foreground – along with the woman’s clothes. Not much of a storyline to get hold of.

All four people were based on individuals well known to the artist: in the foreground is a favourite model, Victorine Meurant, while the male figures depict his brothers (a combo-portrait) and his brother-in-law. There’s been speculation that the setting is a large park on the outskirts of Paris where prostitution was commonplace. That seems way too obvious and I think that Manet set out to shock through his art rather than through the message.

The subject matter and style brim over with anomalies. The animated man in the foreground wears the kind of soft hat normally worn indoors, and holds a walking stick. His conversation is one-sided with the second man taking no interest in the discourse and the women deliberately not part of his audience. Each exists in a bubble of individual consciousness and yet there are distinct pairings: dark / light; self-absorbed / attentive; well-delineated / sketchy. From a painterly perspective the discarded food and clothes have been afforded more precise brushstrokes than the naked flesh of the women.

It is the composition – the composite elements – that give the painting a coherence. The canvas is huge for such a subject – approx. 82 x 106 inches (208 x 264 cm) – and the group dominates.

Using coloured blocks I tried to approximate the relationship of the figures to each other, as well as within the composition. What I found was quite startling in that there are distinct lines of sight that link the various forms:

  • with the woman in the pool positioned top centre the other figures fan out from her, forming a triangle; she is out of proportion with the others and set as she is in a bright beam of light it is no surprise that the original title was ‘Le Bain’
  • while each individual looks in a different direction (shown by the red lines) the animated man points toward the others (shown by the green lines + the brown cane): his thumb and index finger to the two women, his right foot leads down to the right foot of the naked woman, and his walking stick points directly at the face of the second male; the line of the naked woman’s feet run parallel to his left leg

It is as if this group – this foursome – could have been anywhere. In a salon, a private dwelling, on the banks of the Seine, in the Tivoli gardens. The thing that draws them together in their complete uninterest in each other.

Manet’s Legacy

Claude Monet took the title ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ for his 1865-6 painting of a large gathering of elegantly dressed couples: I identified five young women and six men, and a seventh who is sitting away from the party with a picnic hamper.

Manet’s jokey title ‘La Partie Carrée’, that translates as ‘The Foursome’, was adopted as the title of an 1870 painting by James Tissot depicting two high-spirited couples enjoying an outdoor picnic, all fully clothed.

There have been other artistic tributes that have reinforced the power and importance of the rejected artwork that has become Manet’s most recognisable work, and arguably the one that set in motion the pull away from convention and the push toward freedom of style and form that led the movement toward what we now recognise as ‘Modern Art’.

I hope you have enjoyed, and been inspired by, my thoughts on Manet’s painting; if you have then please like, comment, and share.
Thank you for reading.

Stay well. Stay safe. Stay apart. X