Today, Luncheon on the Grass (or Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) is regarded as 19th century French painter Édouard Manet's greatest triumph. But when its unusual take on classical nudes was first displayed, it shocked Paris and earned the artist a reputation as a reckless rebel.
1. THE PARIS ART ELITE JEERED THE PIECE.
Manet tried to get the painting accepted by the Paris Salon in 1863, but the casual nudity of these women among clothed men in a public space so stunned the salon's jury that they refused to display Luncheon on the Grass. Manet was not alone in being snubbed that year—the stingy salon rejected so many artists that Napoleon III created an exhibition for this outcast art. Manet’s misfit masterpiece debuted at the Salon des Refusés ("Salon of the Refused") with its fellow failed salon applicants.
2. MANET STOLE THE REJECTS’ SHOW.
The secondary salon boasted names familiar to any art fan—including Pisarro, Whistler, and Cézanne—but Manet's painting was the show’s standout. With its unconventional representation of nudity, the artwork became this subversive salon's main attraction. But that doesn't mean it was beloved. It's said men scooted their wives past the piece as quickly as possible, then doubled back to gawk. Mostly, Manet's work drew laughter and sneers. The public was scandalized.
3. ITS CONTEXT CAUSED THE CONTROVERSY.
Nude women had long been the subjects of classical art, but those were generally women meant to represent the divine. In Manet's Luncheon on the Grass, the women were not goddesses. One's shed clothes are clearly visible in the lower left corner. And the men in contemporary garb underline Manet's intention of showing modern, real people in place of fantastical or classical figures. These details made the painting feel sexual in a way classical works did not. This collision led critics and the public to call the piece obscene. More alarming to detractors was that the woman in the foreground even dares to confrontationally look out at the viewer with no shame over her nakedness tracing her face.
4. MANET ORIGINALLY CALLED IT LE BAIN ("THE BATH").
The title Manet gave the painting for its debut supplies a milder explanation for the female nudity. But once the piece sparked controversy over its perceived sexual nature, the artist jokingly nicknamed it "la partie carrée," which translates loosely to "the foursome." As has happened with many great works of art, the painting's name shifted along with the public's perception of it.
5. MANET’S COMPOSITION IS A NOD TO RAPHAEL.
In 1515, High Renaissance artist Raphael designed Judgment of Paris. The intricately detailed print originated as a drawing by Raphael that master engraver and collaborator Marcantonio Raimondi then recreated as a print. More than 300 years later, Manet would pull inspiration and poses from the engraving's lower right corner, where two men lounge with a woman whose elbow is perched on her raised knee.
6. THE CONCEPT WAS BORROWED FROM THE RENAISSANCE AS WELL.
The mix of clothed men and casually nude women caused quite a stir, but it was not a new subject. Circa 1510, The Pastoral Concert (which used to be attributed to Giorgione but is now believed to be an early Titian) famously depicted a similar scene.
7. THE CLOTHED MEN WERE MANET’S RELATIVES.
8. THE NUDE WOMAN WAS MANET’S FAVORITE MODEL.
Her name was Victorine-Louise Meurent. She was a popular muse of Parisian painters of the late 1800s. Her nickname, La Crevette ("The Shrimp"), referred not only to her petite size, but also her rosy complexion and signature red hair. She sat for Manet on a number of occasions, appearing in not just Luncheon on the Grass, but also eight other pieces: Portrait of Victorine Meurent, Street Singer, Mlle. Victorine in the Costume of a Matador, Olympia, Woman with a Parrot, The Guitar Player, and The Railway.
9. MANET AND MEURENT TEAMED UP TO SHOCK AGAIN WITH OLYMPIA.
That same year, the pair collaborated on another nude. This one had the redhead lounging on a white, unmade bed, once more calmly staring down her audience. Again breaking from classical tradition, this character seemed less like a fictional figure or a goddess and more like a flesh and blood woman owning her sexuality. When it debuted in 1865, it would mark one of the first times a female nude had been presented in such a realistic manner. And like Luncheon on the Grass, Olympia stunned Paris.
10. MANET’S NUDES SULLIED MEURENT’S REPUTATION.
Because of the intimacy projected in these pieces, many assumed that Manet and Meurent were lovers, but that was just the tip of the gossip iceberg. A popular reading of both Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia is that these brazenly naked women must be prostitutes. This fueled rumors that Meurent herself was a sex worker who had ultimately met an alcohol-fueled end at a young age. In truth, she lived to the ripe old age of 83 and earned acclaim outside of Manet's canvases.
11. MEURENT WAS A PAINTER IN HER OWN RIGHT.
In 1876, Meurent submitted a self-portrait to the Salon, and it was accepted while Manet's submission was denied. She would again show at this prestigious venue in 1879, 1885, and 1904. And in 1903, she was inducted into the esteemed Sociétés des Artistes Français. Sadly, only one of her paintings has survived. Dating from the 1880s, Palm Sunday can be found on display at Musée Municipal d'Art et d'Histoire de Colombes.
12. LUNCHEON ON THE GRASS IS BIGGER THAN YOU MIGHT SUSPECT.
It measures in at 81.9 by 104.5 inches, or nearly 7 by 9 feet.
13. THE DARING PAINTING CONTAINS A HUMBLE STILL LIFE.
In the lower left corner, the wrinkled polka dot dress topped by a toppled basket of fruit, a shiny flask, and a jaunty bonnet prove Manet possessed great mastery of technique. This traditional talent makes his less conventional choices in Luncheon on the Grass all the more compelling.
14. MANET STUNNED THE ART WORLD ONCE MORE 20 YEARS LATER.
In 1882, the Parisian painter offered his last great work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Like Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, the painting featured a redhead whose eyes face out toward the viewer. This time, Meurent was not his model, though once more the muse was presumed to be a real-life prostitute. Notably, Manet played with perspective here in a way that demanded audiences give the piece a second look, just as his challenging "foursome" did decades before.
15. WORKS LIKE THIS MADE MANET THE FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM.
With Luncheon on the Grass, he not only collided cultural elements from different times, but also painted his backdrop with no dimension, as if it were a theatrical flat. Manet likewise rejected rules of proportion, most noticeably in the size of the woman bathing in the background in comparison to the men before her. At the time, these choices rejected "the rules of illusionism" and caused a lot of head scratching from Paris's arts community. But over time, Manet's rebellious style proved seminal to artists like James Tissot, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso.
Want to see the piece for yourself? Today, Luncheon on the Grass is proudly displayed in Paris's Musée d'Orsay.