Is it a great piece of art? Let’s find out

Luncheon on the Grass is not a good painting. That is, if you look at it from the point of view of an intellectual raised on the ideals of classical beauty, in other words, someone who had gone comatose around 1860, woke up moments ago, looked out from the window and went very religious at the sight of an airplane crossing the sky.

A lot of things about this painting are wrong:

  • The light is not natural. It doesn’t play, it doesn’t animate the forest. It is not even clear where is the source of light in Manet’s forest.

This is how it should look, light coming from above, and not from above and from the front at the same time:

Femme-ramassant-du-bois-pres-dune-mare-en-foret (1)

Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena, 1856 – Femme ramassant du bois pres dune mare en foret

  • The bodies are flat. I took a fragment of painting by Charles François Jalabert, a classic contemporary of Manet, as an example:

body1

  • The perspective is wrong. The lady bathing at the back is way too big.
  • And even if the perspective would be right, geometrically, the colours that Manet used collapse it anyway.

See how the colours he used to paint the hair and ribbon in the girl’s hair stick the figures to the background instead of creating a distance:

heads

  • The set-up is crazy. Why is that nude girl looking out? Why the men are dressed? What a smug group of perverts is it?

Of course it made a scandal in 1863.

Today, we scoff at people and art critics who ridiculed it, because we have been indoctrinated to believe it was the departure point for modern art. We know the painting has had a huge following, and you have had a chance to enjoy some of the “hommage” paid to it over the years in my previous post. But imagine our knowledge is limited to the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, Classicism, and, perhaps, a bit of the Barbizon school. Let’s face it: we’d dismiss this painting as a product of twisted imagination with no ability to paint behind it.

Or not. Let’s do one more leap of imagination.

Imagine yourself an upper middle class Parisian, sauntering through life in 1863.

What are the things that excite you?

Photography. And not just photography, but affordable, industrialised photography that Disdéri invented a few years ago.

Louis Camille d'Olivier, photographer (French, 1827 - after 1870), [Nude Study], French, 1852, Salted paper print

Louis Camille d’Olivier, photographer (French, 1827 – after 1870), [Nude Study], French, 1852, Salted paper print

Look at the body in the photograph, and then look at the body in Manet’s Luncheon.

Chinese and Japanese art. You stood in awe in front of Chinese art at the 1855 Universal Exhibition. The whole of Paris talked about it. A year ago, La Porte Chinoise, a shop selling various Japanese(!) goods including prints, opened in the rue de Rivoli; and numerous artists became its patrons at once. You, being a friend of a friend of Félix Bracquemond, an artist busy with reviving etching in France, got to see some pages of Hokusai Manga seven years ago. Felix said he had discovered the prints as discarded wrapping in a porcelain shop, but you know that’s a myth. He spreads this tale around to raise his prestige as an art connoisseur.

Hokusai Manga, Bathing People

Hokusai Manga, Bathing People

You remember how you marveled at Hokusai’s bathers: they seemed so free, so alive, so… like you, if not in appearance then in their emotions. These prints were the ones you’d remember when you are told the original name for Manet’s Luncheon was The Bath.

Women and sex. Everyone, suddenly, got much more free time on their hands than people had ever had since the Expulsion from Paradise. And a lot more space to spend that free time at: Haussmann’s broad boulevards, suburbs made accessible by railroads, all those open air cafes and dance floors! Women, of course, are not yet equal to men, but on a country dance floor they all seem quite independent and, well, accessible. Cheap whores, and their aristocratic varieties have always been there, but now you’ve got access to prostitutes that cater to the middle classes and bourgeoisie.

It is not surprising then, that in his portrait of Emile Zola (not yet painted in 1863), Manet has shown a Japanese print, a photograph, and a picture of his own Olympia, a model of questionable morals.

zola

Being a part of new urban society

What else (except flirting with the opposite sex) can you do with your free time? Oh, yes, you spend time with other clever men. You love intellectual duels with writers, poets, painters, bankers, who want to be seen as philosophers, and clerks, who aspire to be big-time bankers. It makes you feel important, and valuable beyond your managerial job at a new department store. You feel you belong to a new generation of people. The only problem is that you can’t say (and no one can) what this new generation is, actually, about. What you know with certainty though, is that the old generation is a bunch of old gaffers who believe the concept of aristocratic socialism has a future. Aristocratic socialism, what a laughable Utopia is that, for Descartes’ sake!

The old aristocracy is not producing anything. They’ve lost vitality required to build a new, modern civilization and make sense out of it. It’s up to you now.

So, what (else) do you scoff at?

Classical art, of course! All those Greek myth, stories of Gothic valour, past victories of kings that have been dead for centuries and don’t inspire anyone, except those few idiots who believe themselves to be their descendants. You respect the Louvre collection, but it is the past, not even the present! You love Raphael and Titian, but you despise modern classicists who persist in copying the past styles, rather than creating something new. They keep painting Greek profiles instead of glorifying the modern French beauty, with her turned-up nose!

The Catholic church. Well, you know it is out there, somewhere, for christenings, weddings, and funerals, but it seems so irrelevant, so…ancient in all other matters. Loyalty in marriage? A half of Paris shags the other half of Paris, all extra-maritally, and then pretends they are Catholics. This hypocrisy tears at your heart. Religious, artistic, social life – they all seem to have frozen in time, while the society, relationships, industry, and trade keep developing exponentially.

What do you detest?

Your generation that you are so proud to be a part of does not have an objective. It doesn’t even have a style of its own! Aristocrats have their art academies, their own tastes (that you scoff at), their own militaristic pride. Workers have their Karl Marx, or if they haven’t read it yet at least they can revel in their collective hatred of factory owners. And you make or can make everything, and have nothing, except those friggin’ picnics in the country!

You feel intellectually capable of creating new meanings of life and living in this modern age, but no one actually wants to hear you out.

You detest not having a voice, not having a style of your own, not having a real value behind the superficial smugness of scoffing at those impotent aristocrats and illiterate working classes.

So, here comes Edouard Manet, a well-off artist with a very active social life.

Manet takes things you love, hate, and scorn; blends them into a new style, a novel aesthetics that you can use to start expressing yourself. Manet gives you, the liberal bourgeois, a voice.

And this is how he did it.

He took an engraving made after Raphael’s Judgement of Paris as the base for his composition.

The judgement of Paris was about Jupiter sending Hermes with three goddesses to Paris, whom he charged with judging the first Beauty Pageant in history. Each of the contestants offered him bribes, making beauty pageants the only event at which bribes are divinely blessed (contrary to what Sepp Blatter might have thought about FIFA’s selection process of World Cup hosts, I have to say).

Paris could choose world dominance (proposed by Jupiter’s wife) or skill at war (a gift from Minerva), but he went for the world’s most beautiful married woman, crowning Venus who made the offer. Paris was very romantic, very honest, and very stupid: his choice led to the Trojan war, and the ultimate destruction of his country. The idiot could pick world dominance, and, a bit later, Helena would be his trophy anyway.

Note the name. Paris. We talk about Paris choosing beauty over other important stuff, and bringing war to his nation. It was seven years until an actual war, with very practical Germans, broke out, and Paris, the city, was besieged.

Does Manet want you to associate yourself with Paris? No. You are just an onlooker. You can’t do anything: all the choices are made by Napoleon III. So, Manet “cuts out” the onlookers, the three satyrs drinking wine in a relaxed way (bottom right corner). One of them seems to watch the award ceremony of the pageant, but his companions are more interested in the observer (like the girl) or the other bank of the river (like the male satyr).

raphael2

Then, Manet mixes it up with the idea of the Pastoral Concert by Titian:

Fiesta_campestre

He does it for a very simple reason. While the Judgement of Paris is a pure myth about gods screwing men big time, the concert is about gods helping humans in activities less grandiose than stealing queens, slaughtering thousands, or surviving the wrath of a rejected woman. It shows two musicians being helped by two nude muses, who don’t need to dress up because mortals can’t see them anyway.

In his painting, Manet kills the classic myth as a topic worthy of any further artistic exploration and simply tells you, “Come on, guys, stop pretending you’re being inspired by gods. You are inspired by sleeping with very mortal women. Let’s talk about them.”

And to emphasise the point, Manet not only paints the fruit associated with passion, he inserts a frog in the left corner, because it was a slang word for prostitutes at the time:

Frog

And this is why he modeled the body of the nude girl after his wife, but gave her the head of the model who posed for the bathing girl (who later became widely known as Olympia). You don’t want your wife to be represented as a whore. He also didn’t want any abstract “Greek-type” face: he wanted it to be “modern French”.

The way Manet executed the painting borrows stylistic choices from the Japanese and photographic craze, as I am sure you’ve already guessed.

Appropriation of popular imagery and its reinterpretation with modern methods or materials was at the heart of post-modernism. So, in a way, Manet paved the way for modernism using post-modernist means. He was not just the first modernist, but the first post-modernist as well. 

Fortunately, a preparatory sketch of the Luncheon survived, and we can compare the final version with it, trying to understand Manet’s choices at the very last stage of painting the Luncheon. We also need to remember that Manet was a good painter. All the “problems” I listed at the beginning of this article were not mistakes, they were indeed conscious choices.

Changes

1. Change of head – well, we just covered it

2. The male figure is shifted to the right. Some critics believe it was done to make the bathing girl bend for the thumb of the man in an erotic metaphor. Maybe, but this shift simply makes the space less crowded, allows the eye to travel a bit more within the painting, and yes, the movement of the man’s arm now now rhymes with that of the woman’s arm and body. Also, it helps to clear up the way to the clearing in the forest (see 4 below)

3. The bathing woman. No one seems to pay any attention to her. In the final version, Manet pushed her even closer to the observer, as if he wanted to make a point. So, what was the point? Something to think about.

4. Manet eliminated the warm ochre tones he used in the background in his sketch, and opened up a clearing in the forest, making the whole composition a pyramid of sorts with the tip pointing at the sky.

pyramid

Now, Manet tells you to stuff the old myths back to where they belong, and to focus on the real life. Focus on the modern life! For that, you don’t need the painter to give you a photographic representation of each leaf, of each tree-trunk, of perspective or natural light. What’s important about perspective? Not its rules: he breaks them, he collapses perspective to make this point. It’s what you put in perspective that matters. 

To move over from “watch and learn from the story I painted for you” to “make up your own story from the setting I am giving you” was quite revolutionary at the time. The observer is challenged (by the nude girls looking outside of the painting) to not join the picnic group, but to make sense, his or her own sense at that, of what’s going on there.

What the men’s conversation is about? Why are the girls excluded from it? If the girls are bathing, and men are talking about something important, is their function to be flesh-and-blood muses? Is it the modern way of life? Dozens of questions that keep popping up like champaign bottles in a factory with malfunctioning temp control, as you watch the painting.

Giving a voice to the new generation meant not giving answers (it was the old, classical school of thought), it meant asking questions. Manet was saying, guys, it’s up to you to define the agenda.

Yet, Manet goes a bit further on. He suggests at least one element of the new agenda for you by painting the bathing woman at the back. A clothed bathing woman. He names the painting “The Bath”. He puts the bathing girl in the visual focus, he brings her forward to you, he names his painting The Bath and you still don’t know what the painting is about?

You know what? Neither do I.

Oh, I have a few versions or ideas, but I am not sure any of them is right, or if they can be right or wrong at all. And that’s the beauty of a masterpiece. It never stops speaking to you, even if you are not an upper middle class dandy of 1863.

Tell me what you think about the bathing girl. Tell me what questions come up to your mind. After all, we are not that much different from Parisians of 1863. We just dress differently. 

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15 thoughts on “Is it a great piece of art? Let’s find out

  1. Boryana

    Brilliant and different than anything else I have read on the subject! I do not have a firm answer to the question about the bathing girl, but the words that come to my mind are ‘reversal’ and ‘juxtaposition’. The naked woman is grouped with the men while the dressed one is bathing alone and ostensibly detached from the rest of the group. There is also this ‘Don’t pretend you don’t know it’ expression on the face of the naked woman. If we think of it in terms of reversal of roles/values/mores/expectations – a lot of interesting interpretations start popping up. How about: society women are not what they pretend to be, or the ‘bathing nymph’ type belongs to an invented world (hence her off-perspective, off-light rendering), the real woman is here, sitting next to you in her glorious flesh. Or: you pretend to be talking about lofty subjects (symbolized by the clothed shy nymph, placed in a dimension of her own, emitting divine light etc) while what’s really on your mind is me, the woman of flesh and blood.
    How’s that?

    Reply
    1. artmoscow Post author

      I think you are very right in your interpretation. Old myth was not a source of inspiration in the new society, but real girls were) thank you!

      Reply
  2. swo8

    I can see that a lot of thought went into your post. The painting is telling a story alright. Perhaps the bather is clothed because she hasn’t been charmed out of her clothes as of yet. The dandy on the right is either beckoning or motioning for her to come over. He could be saying “Why don’t you join us, see she hasn’t got her clothes on?”
    Leslie

    Reply
  3. Neda

    The analysis that you have made on this work is really amazing and exciting.
    The feeling I have ever had watching this picture, is that Manet had painted the woman who bathes with her dress to put even more emphasis in the naked woman in the foreground.
    It also seems that the dressed woman is looking towards the naked woman, awaiting something.
    Good evening and many thanks for your very interesting lessons.

    Reply
    1. artmoscow Post author

      Thank you, Neda – I am glad you enjoyed it. I really struggled with this post, because this work is so much bigger than any written analysis can offer!

      Reply
  4. Wayne

    I just thought of it as women being objects while the men discussed serious matters – but as you say – it is open to interpretation. Great post!

    Reply
    1. artmoscow Post author

      The nude girl, yes, she does seem to be an object or a symbol of sexual passion that makes men do both very clever and extremely stupid things, but the bathing one… Why is she bathing? Before or after what? Why is she clothed? Yes, there are many questions that we have to answer on our own ) Thank you!

      Reply

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