A luncheon on the grass isn’t what it used to be.
Legend has it that in the mid-1800s, while watching bathers in the Seine, Edouard Manet was reminded of a painting he’d seen in the Louvre, Giorgione’s Concert Champêtre (Pastoral Symphony). He was inspired to reinterpret Giorgione’s work, which showed nude females serving clothed men a luncheon under the trees, and to give it a contemporary twist.
At the time, there was only one way young artist could achieve success: by participating in official, government-sanctioned exhibitions at the Académie des beaux-arts. At these shows, known as the Salons de Paris, conservative juries favored classical painting styles depicting biblical and mythological themes.
In 1863, when Manet submitted Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) — the painting Giorgione’s work had inspired — to the Salon’s selection committee, they refused to include it in the show. In fact, that year the committee turned away nearly every work that employed modern subjects or techniques.
The rejected artists’ protests and their claims of bias resulted in French Emperor Napoleon III deciding to allow their works — including Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe — to be shown in a separate exhibition called the Salon des Refusés.
When the Salon opened, Manet’s painting caused a public outcry. The critics were not offended by the nudity, but by the fact that the nudes had no supernatural or religious connotations; rather, they were shown as real people, modern, recognizable Parisians enjoying what appeared to be a bawdy, drunken picnic on the grass.
Of course, then as now, notoriety has its rewards. The rejection, outrage and resulting scandal not only helped cement Manet’s reputation and make him a hero to the avant-garde, it also brought together the group of young painters who created the Impressionist movement.
Today I saw a group in Central Park enjoying a birthday luncheon on the grass. Unlike the women Manet’s painting, all of these New Yorkers remained fully dressed. But, just as their Parisian antecedents did, they lounged in the sunlight, nibbled on sweet treats and raised their goblets.
And, they had one thing that surely would have inspired jealousy among Giorgione and Manet’s models: a large, deluxe, insulated fiberglass cooler. After all, on a sunny afternoon, the only thing better than a luncheon on the grass is a luncheon that includes a properly chilled wine.
Picnics in Paintings
Artcyclopedia: Forbidden Visions
National Gallery of Australia: History of the Paris Salons
Musée du Louvre
Rossetti Archive: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s For a Venetian Pastoral
Musee d’Orsay: Le déjeuner sur l’herbe
The Web Museum: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe
Wikipedia: The Luncheon on the Grass