Monday, August 15, 2011

Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe: It Ain't Fittin', It Just Ain't Fittin'

Once upon a time I thought Impressionists painted only scenes of mothers snuggling their children, the color-drenched sunflowers of Provence, or elderly black and grey clad mothers passively enthroned on wooden chairs. Then I saw this painting. Edouard Manet's Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe. Lunch On the Grass, painted in 1863. What in the world. Two words immediately hit me. Confusing and scandalous. The subject matter, the style, and the composition all shattered what little I thought I knew about masterpiece paintings. Who are these people? Tell me what's happening here (or I'd probably rather not know). What's with the woman in the background?
Actually, confusion and scandal could be applied to many of the easily recognizable paintings of the Impressionist era. You probably are familiar with this one, Manet's Fife Player. Why is it confusing and scandalous? First, the colors were "too bold" in the opinion of those whose opinions mattered most. And scandalous because the fife player is suspended without context. He's in front of a canvas backdrop. He's not standing on anything. Unforgivable.
Or maybe this portrait of Manet's parents. What could possibly be wrong with this? Much evidently. For starters, the persons in the painting.  They were just ordinary people. Not good subject matter according to the powers that be. Manet's father August, a well respected judge, and his mother Eugenie were upper middle class Parisians. But in this painting they were presented as ordinary, common. And then their clothing. Mr. and Mrs. Manet are captured in every day attire. Worst of all, they are painted doing something totally mundane. Just living. Inconceivable. Once again, no context. There's a table but nothing else to place them in a proper setting. Supposedly the realism was ugly and excessive.

This one may be less familiar. Gustave Courbet's Burial at Ornans.
Why is it vulgar? Because Delacroix said so. Those gathered in this scene are assorted folk from Courbet's hometown who display little if any grief, sadness, or fear. Parisian critics declared their faces shockingly ugly, the brush strokes unprofessional, and the color dismal. Other than that they must have liked it a ton.

Back to Lunch On the Grass.
From your perspective Manet's painting is small. Think again. It's actually 7' x 8.5' which was considered waaaay too large for a painting of a picnic. Battlefield? Fine. Historical event? Fine. Lunch on the grass? No. Too big. Then there's the problem of the lighting. It's too harsh. It's as if the subjects are seated under a fluorescent light in a studio. There's no gradient or shadow. Unacceptable.
Let's consider the most obvious problem that presents itself.
 Uhm....herself. I've tried to shrink her down a bit.
This young woman seated with two clothed men makes us squirm. Why? She's not the first nude on canvas. She's not even the first nude on canvas with two clothed men. Behold, Giorgione (or Titian's) Fete Champetre.
Looks strikingly familiar, doesn't it? The difference is that these two nymphs are supposed to appear this way because it's how they look all the time as opposed to the above unclothed woman seated with a pile of her discarded clothing next to her. (Clothing that was discovered by x-ray to have been added after the painting had been finished.)
Then there's the issue of her gaze. This woman, eighteen year old Victorine Meurant, Manet's model and "companion," looks straight out of the painting. Is she looking to Manet for direction or approval? Or is she looking at the viewer? If she looks at the viewer is she inviting you into the picnic or questioning your presence? See why this is all so troubling? Confusing? Scandalous? Like Hattie McDaniel said in Gone With the Wind, "It ain't fittin'! It just ain't fittin'."
What about the these young men? The one on the left is Ferdinand Leenhoff, Manet's brother-in-law. He wears a smoking cap that would ordinarily not have been worn outdoors.  The other is Manet's brother Eugene in the clothing of a student. Neither of the men, nor the women for that matter, look at anyone else in the painting. The disconnect between them alienates the viewer from the painting and makes Victorine's stare all the more discomforting.
What's the story on the Grecian goddess in the background? The fact that it's most difficult to find out information on her is interesting since the painting was originally entitled, "The Bath." She's the only one bathing and is uppermost and disproportionately large. Confusing for sure.
But then so are the trees and the stream. He just seems to have gotten the depth and perspective all wrong.
That's not all Manet seems to have gotten wrong. Notice the picnic items if you can in this little bitty shot. Are they about to eat? Did they already eat? Why just one roll when there are four people? They're eating figs and cherries. That would be fine except figs and cherries weren't in season at the same time and Manet wasn't getting any produce shipped in from southern California. What gives?
Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe was entered in the Salon of Paris in 1863 along with 5,000 other entries, 2,873 of which were rejected by the jurors. Napoleon III established another salon "Salon des Refuses" to showcase those paintings that had been refused for obvious reasons, to further attempt to discredit these rebellious artists, and finish them off once and for all. Guess who got the last laugh all the way to the bank? Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe catapulted Manet to fame and the rest, shall we say, is art history.

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