Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe is a large oil on canvas painting by Édouard Manet. Created in 1862 and 1863, its juxtaposition of a female nude with fully dressed men sparked controversy when the work was first exhibited at the Salon des Refusés. The piece is now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. A smaller, earlier version can be seen at the Courtauld Gallery, London.

Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe is not a realist painting in the social or political sense of Daumier, but it is a statement in favor of the artist's individual freedom. The shock value of a nude woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men, which was an affront to the propriety of the time, was accentuated by the familiarity of the figures.

Manet's wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, and his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, both posed for the nude woman, which has Meurent's face, but Leenhoff's body. Her body is starkly lit and she stares directly at the viewer. The two men are Manet's brother Eugene Manet and his future brother in law, Ferdinand Leenhoff. They are dressed like dandies. The men seem to be engaged in conversation, ignoring the woman. In front of them, the woman's clothes, a basket of fruit, and a round loaf of bread are displayed, as in a still life. In the background a lightly clad woman bathes in a stream. Too large in comparison with the figures in the foreground, she seems to float above them. The roughly painted background lacks depth — giving the viewer the impression that the scene is not taking place outdoors, but in a studio. This impression is reinforced by the use of broad "photographic" light, which casts almost no shadows: in fact, the lighting of the scene is inconsistent and unnatural. The man on the right wears a flat hat with a tassel, of a kind normally worn indoors.

Despite the mundane subject, Manet deliberately chose a large canvas size, normally reserved for grander subjects. The style of the painting breaks with the academic traditions of the time. He did not try to hide the brush strokes: indeed, the painting looks unfinished in some parts of the scene. The nude is a far cry from the smooth, flawless figures of Cabanel or Ingres.

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