Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet
Interpretation of Avant-Garde Genre Painting

Pin it

Dejeuner sur l'herbe
("Luncheon on the Grass").
By Edouard Manet.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Modern Paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863)


Avant-Garde Art
An Expression of Contemporary Life
Explanation of Other Modern Paintings


Name: Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863) (Luncheon on the Grass)
Artist: Edouard Manet (1832-83)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Movement: Realism
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Detail of Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

For analysis of paintings
by Impressionists
like Manet, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Dejeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard Manet

Widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern art, Manet was associated with the 'new style of painting' - later dubbed Impressionism - and was held in the highest esteem by Impressionist painters like Berthe Morisot (1841-95), Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919) and Degas (1834-1917). However, he never exhibited at any of the Impressionist Exhibitions. Although some of his paintings - notably his female nudes like Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863) - caused enormous scandal among the critics and the public, he remained essentially an establishment man who sought, above all, recognition from the Salon and the Academy. A pupil of the academic history painter Thomas Couture (1815-79), Manet was strongly influenced by the Old Masters in the Louvre, notably the Venetians Giorgione (1477-1510) and Titian (1485-1567), Dutch portraitist Frans Hals (1582-1666), the Spanish classicist Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) and the Romantic Goya (1746-1828). Among Manet's greatest genre paintings are: The Balcony (1868); Roadmenders in the Rue de Berne (1878); and A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882). For more about the artist, see: Impressionist Manet (1832-83). For more background, please see also: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting.

The history of modern art begins in conflict between the "official taste" of the French academy, with its historical or literary Classicism and its preoccupation with surface consistency, and the heroically independent artists who fought for an authentically modern urban art. And this beginning came in the spring of 1863 at the Salon des Refusés, an official exhibition ordered by the Emperor of France, Napoleon III, to show the many works of art rejected by the unusually harsh jury of the official Salon that year. (Two-thirds of the submitted works had been refused.) The Emperor's aim was not to sanction the "rejected" art but to allow the public a chance to "judge the jurors." He certainly aroused the Parisians' curiosity - on the first day alone there were seven thousand visitors, and one work of art literally stole the show - Edouard Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). This was the first of many exceptional examples of painting defined by scandal and, finally, sanctioned by art history, entering the highest echelons of official taste.

Manet was forty and, although he had courted the attention of sophisticated Parisians, was known only to a small circle of friends, until he suddenly found fame with Dejeuner sur l'herbe. The painting scandalized Paris. Not since The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) had one work encapsulated the revolutionary tendencies of a generation. It was criticized for its crudity, amorality, and decadence.

The critic Ernest-Alfred Chesneau (1833-90), for example, wrote of the picture: "Two daubers, attired in velvet, chat about aesthetics with a woman dressed only in her virtue..." "Its garish colouring pierces the eyes like a steel saw; his figures seem to have been cut out with a punch and have a hardness that is capable of no soothing compromise. It has all the unpalatabilty of green fruits that will never ripen."



Avant-Garde Art

But at the same time, the painting won the enthusiastic approval of young artists and was to become a cult item of avant-garde art.

In the painting, Manet depicts a naked (as opposed to nude) woman, whose clearly contemporary clothing is arranged with bread, fruit and a large silver flask, at the lower left. The two young men, wearing equally contemporary dress, have been identified as students. Clearly the nude is no goddess, but a modern woman - perhaps even a prostitute - who not only dares to appear naked with men but brazenly acknowledges the viewer, making us accomplices in this amoral picnic. Another young woman, clad only in her chemise, washes herself in a stream. This is neither Susannah nor Bathsheba at the bath, and the fact that the picture was originally called simply Le Bain (The Bath) shows that Manet made no attempt to "clothe" his subject with allegory or history, choosing to represent what would have been in reality a private act in the completely public forum of a government sponsored exhibition.

Yet, the visual theme would not, by itself, have ensured the painting's succes du scandale. Manet chose to paint the work rapidly, often with large brushes that summarily (some thought sloppily) described the landscape setting, and rendered the foreground figures and still-life elements with large, separate strokes of paint that, for many viewers, were as "crude" as the represented subject. Eschewing the elegant linear work of J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) - see The Valpincon Bather (1808) and La Grande Odalisque (1914) - Manet preferred the approach of the ever-scandalous Gustave Courbet (1819-77), who painted nudes in his studio and used a palette knife in preference to a brush.

Manet was not a complete rebel. The painting is full of allusions to the "museum" art of Giorgione, Raphael, and Titian and, closer still, to the gently amoral fetes galantes of 18th-century French artists like Francois Boucher (1703-70) and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), both of whom occasionally painted with equally "crude" strokes of paint. It is, thus, as "academic" in its self-selected aesthetic pedigree as any work by the ostensibly "academic" artists Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) or Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904). Yet, even in his quotations, Manet teased the viewer into accepting the vulgar "reality" of his subject by treating it in terms set by "works of art" in museums. It was originally thought to be a modern adaptation of Giorgione's Concert Champetre, but the poses of all three central figures actually derive from subsidiary figures in the engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534), after The Judgment of Paris (1515-16) by Raphael (now lost).

It is, though, the forthright gaze of Manet's model, that makes this self-conscious pastiche so compelling. The painting looks back at us and prods us into an act of aesthetic and social judgment that we might otherwise avoid. Both the alert - and non-erotic - pose of the model and the fact that her toe plays absentmindedly with the pants leg of the gesturing gentleman, make it difficult for us to take this ambitious composition seriously.

For other figure paintings by Manet, see: Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) and Portrait of Berthe Morisot with Violets (1872).

An Expression of Contemporary Life

Manet wanted to express contemporary life, in which social boundaries, differences in rank and moral ideas had not been quite so binding for some time. Prostitutes, for example, started to play a not inconsiderable social role and no longer led a clandestine life; in male fashion theatre employees could hardly be distinguished from aristocrats. Suddenly, in an increasingly industrialized material work it was not only things that had become more available and exchangeable, but also the insignia of social rank. Manet took this breaking down of traditional social orders as one of his subjects - the experience of the uprooted individual in a rapidly changing society.

The figures in Manet's pictures always face us as if by chance encounter, with a fleeting, indifferent, often abrupt gaze. They are ordinary Parisians: the man looking out of the picture is based on Manet's brother, the other man is the sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff (1841-1914) - his sister, the pianist Suzanne Leenhoff (1829-1906) was to become Manet's wife in 1863); and the naked female is the recurring figure of Manet's favourite model, Victorine Meurent ("the shrimp") (1844-1927). Meurent's situation merely underscored how times were changing. Far from being a stripper, she was a much sought-after model and an artist in her own right, who regularly exhibited at the Paris Salon. In 1876, for instance, her paintings were approved for inclusion at the Salon's juried exhibition, whereas Manet's work was not.

Explanation of Other Modern 19th Century Paintings

A Burial at Ornans (1850) by Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Artist's Studio (1855) by Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Women in the Garden (1866-7) by Monet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Ballet Class (1871-4) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

NOTE: For the story behind "Impressionism" and the artists who created it, please see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.


• For the meaning of other 19th century genre paintings, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.