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A Discussion of Two Controversial Works of Art

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A Discussion of Two Controversial Works of Art,

Edouard Manet’s

Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia

Genise Caruso

March 23, 2006

A name associated with controversy in the art world, French-born artist, Edouard Manet, has come to be viewed as one of the founders of modern art. (Cole & Gealt, 1989). Born on January 23, 1832, his mother the goddaughter of Charles Bernadotte, Crown Prince of Sweden and father, distinguished judge in the Ministry of Justice, Manet was brought up into the ranks of the well-bred and well-off Parisian bourgeoisie.

Despite appearing to be the quintessential role model of a well-mannered, well-spoken and well-read man of high society, he showed no inclination or ability for academic subject matter. Manet’s only true interest and talent were in the arts. This was much to his father’s disappointment, who wanted his son to follow his example and pursue a career in law. (Wikipedia, 2006). After two failed attempts at passing the naval entrance exam, he entered the studio of Thomas Couture, where he studied art, from 1850 to 1856.

In 1852, after a two-year affair, Manet and his 20-year-old piano teacher, Suzanne Leenhoff, had an illegitimate so. Despite eventually marrying, they never fold his highly conservative father about the child, and passed him off as Suzanne’s younger brother.

One of the first nineteenth century artists to depict modern-life subjects, Manet’s work united the contradiction between Realism and Impressionism. Although inspired by the old masters, he felt art should reflect ideas and values of the present, instead of the past. (McDonald, 1999).

Impressionists developed new ways of depicting the world and unlike Realists were less interested in social criticism than in expressing pleasures of life in their works. (Sayre, 2004). Public opinion of Impressionism during this time was very negative, as it applied to the process of painting. Works were considered superficial and artists’ views regarded as unworthy. Subject matter set them apart from others, as much as technique did. Their concentration on modern landscape, indiscriminate views of life and sketchy techniques were repeatedly rejected for exhibition. (Welton, 1993).

The Works

Image One

Déjeuner sur l’herbe. (Luncheon on the Grass), by Edouard Manet, 1862-63, oil on canvas, 7’ x 8’ 10”.

This painting is an oddly depicted scene of several people having some sort of picnic. They are in a wooded area, surrounded by trees. Two men and a woman sit on the grass in the foreground, while another woman in the background appears to be bending over a small pond. Strewn on the ground of the ‘picnickers,’ are clothing, a basket laying on its side with the contents of fruit half in and half spilling out, a round loaf of bread and several other items, not clear, due to the cropping of the representation.

The entire image has a ‘dark’ quality to it. The trees, especially on the left side, plus grassy area in the foreground of the three sitting individuals, are very dark – black to be exact, leaving no natural light showing through. Yet, there is no sense it is nighttime or a cloudy day. There is a bit, of what appears to be daylight, peeking through trees in the far background behind the other woman.

When examined more closely, the green grass area directly beyond the woman in the background, virtually appears to be a painted backdrop and not real at all. It is flat, disproportionate with the rest of the image and basically does not look real.

Through further exploration, the picture lacks any depth, has an inconsistent, unnatural lighting quality, casting almost no shadows. The two women’s bodies are starkly lit, in comparison with the rest of the picture. An impression is, this scene may not have taken place outdoors at all, but done in a studio. It all appears too orchestrated and posed.

The three people sitting on the grass are an odd combination, in numerous ways. The juxtaposition of the nude female with fully dressed men is what sparked so much public controversy and outrage when first exhibited in 1863. (Wikipedia).

Two men sit fully clothes and amidst them is a nude woman. Strange by any rights, but their casual, nonchalant expressions and posture, is what makes it really odd. Both men are wearing similar type garb. Their black coats appear to be buttoned, while shirt and tie peer out slightly and are tight around their necks, not undone at all. One of the men is clearly wearing black shoes and both don hats.

The long pants, heavy looking, buttoned coats and hats look cumbersome, suggesting cold weather. Their formal attire seems so out of place in this setting, as if they should be attending an opera, not a picnic. Yet the men’s expressions, posture and body language appear to be quite at ease and not at all uncomfortable.

Compared to the majority of the painting, Manet put a considerable amount of detail in these two. They have a photographic quality to their appearance, unlike the background, which has harsh, unfinished looking brush strokes.

The nude woman on the other hand, appears flat and lacks the smooth flawlessness of ones done by artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. (Sayre). Shadow is reduced to a band-like outline.

Just as the fully clad gentlemen look to be relaxed, enjoying a leisurely ‘luncheon on the grass,’ the nude woman appears equally content, even with a hint of complacency. Nothing remotely seems to imply any awkwardness, self-consciousness or modestly on her part.

Both the nude woman and man by her side, look directly at the viewer, in a seemingly posed posture. Another indication these three were posed is because the ultimate them was conceived when Manet, reminded of Giorgionés, Concert Champêtre, decided to repeat it in a clearer color and with modern figures. (WebMuseum, 2002). It was also based on a copy of an engraving, The Judgment of Paris, originally by Raphael. The pose of the three main figures in Déjeuner is a direct copy of the figures in the engraving. (Sayre). All indications suggest the woman in the background is bathing in a small pond. Also nude, she appears to be draped in a transparent-like cloth. The painting’s distorted spatial quality makes her too large in comparison with the figures in the foreground. It is also very difficult to clearly see any pond-like image. There is a surreal, dreamlike value to her presence, almost as if she is floating in a cloud.

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