How Édouard Manet Became “the Father of Impressionism” with the Scandalous Panting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863)

Édouard Manet’s Le Déje­uner sur l’herbe (1863) caused quite a stir when it made its pub­lic debut in 1863. Today, we might assume that the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the paint­ing had to do with its con­tain­ing a nude woman. But, in fact, it does not con­tain a nude woman — at least accord­ing to the analy­sis pre­sent­ed by gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in his new Great Art Explained video above. “The woman in this paint­ing is not nude,” he explains. “She is naked.” Where­as “the nude is posed, per­fect, ide­al­ized, the naked is just some­one with no clothes on,” and, in this par­tic­u­lar work, her faint­ly accusato­ry expres­sion seems to be ask­ing us, “What are you look­ing at?”

Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Manet’s even more scan­dalous Olympia, which was first exhib­it­ed in 1865. In both that paint­ing and Déje­uner, the woman is based on the same real per­son: Vic­torine Meurent, whom Manet used more fre­quent­ly than any oth­er mod­el.

“A respect­ed artist in her own right,” Meurent also “exhib­it­ed at the Paris Salon six times, and was induct­ed into the pres­ti­gious Société des Artistes Français in 1903.” That she got on that path after a work­ing-class upbring­ing “shows a for­ti­tude of mind and a strength of char­ac­ter that Manet need­ed for Déje­uner.” But what­ev­er per­son­al­i­ty she exud­ed, her non-ide­al­ized nudi­ty, or rather naked­ness, could­n’t have changed art by itself.

Manet gave Meuren­t’s exposed body an artis­tic con­text, and a max­i­mal­ly provoca­tive one at that, by putting it on a large can­vas “nor­mal­ly reserved for his­tor­i­cal, reli­gious, and mytho­log­i­cal sub­jects” and mak­ing choic­es — the vis­i­ble brush­strokes, the stage-like back­ground, the obvi­ous clas­si­cal allu­sions in a clear­ly mod­ern set­ting — that delib­er­ate­ly empha­size “the arti­fi­cial con­struc­tion of the paint­ing, and paint­ing in gen­er­al.” What under­scores all this, of course, is that the men sit­ting with her all have their high­ly eigh­teen-six­ties-look­ing clothes on. Manet may have changed the rules, open­ing the door for Impres­sion­ism, but he still reminds us how much of art’s pow­er, what­ev­er the peri­od or move­ment, comes from sheer con­trast.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Scan­dalous Paint­ing That Helped Cre­ate Mod­ern Art: An Intro­duc­tion to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

Édouard Manet Illus­trates Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” in a French Edi­tion Trans­lat­ed by Stephane Mal­lar­mé (1875)

A Quick Six Minute Jour­ney Through Mod­ern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Paint­ing The Lun­cheon on the Grass to Jack­son Pol­lock­’s 1950s Drip Paint­ings

Watch Icon­ic Artists at Work: Rare Videos of Picas­so, Matisse, Kandin­sky, Renoir, Mon­et, Pol­lock & More

The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) Puts Online 90,000 Works of Mod­ern Art

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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