Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe
MANET was one of the leaders III the revolt of the modern French artists
against the stupidities of officialdom and the entrenched arrogance of the
He was not by nature pugnacious, nor was he disposed to ad
vance himself by the tactics of the scandalmonger-but his convictions were
as honest and intelligent as they were offensive to the academic juries, and for
many years, almost singlehanded, he carried the battle into the camp of the
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He began by infuriating his teacher, an imitation classicist, with a pic
ture of an absinthe drinker; they parted company, and thenceforth he went his
way alone, certain of what he wanted to do and with a levelheaded notion of
He matured early, painting with a clear caressing elegance that
left its mark on Whistler and a host of subsequent artists; painting exciting ar
rangements of tone which today are contemplated with delight and with no
sense of embarrassment or affronted decency.
But the bigwigs of the Salon were not delighted. Buried in historical or
mythological lore, they fancied themselves idealists, whereas they were hard
They regarded Manet’s realism as abominable, and his unexpected
aspects of nature created a tumult of protest. Two pictures painted in his early
thirties ruined him for life; one a representation of two nude grisettes lunching
in the woods with a couple of dressed gentlemen; the other, the infamous
Olympia, a reclining nude.
Both pictures are modernizations of paintings by
Giorgione; both are challenges to the classical conception of nudity. The Salon
retainers, abetted by Napoleon III and the Empress who supervised the whole
sale condemnation, approved of nudes, but for the sake of their official trade
clamored for something less ingenuous-an artificially idealized goddess or a
discreetly seductive nymph, not an undisguised Parisian model. For his hon
esty, Manet paid the penalty of persecution.
The original ancestor of Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe is Giorgione’s Concert
champetre (Plate 35), but the more direct parent is an engraving after
Raphael, whose grouping of the figures in the foreground is closely followed.
The painting, now in the Louvre, is no longer an object of moral indignation.
It was never intended for an actuality: it was painted by Manet in an arranged
Iighting as an exhibition picture, and that is precisely what it is-an exhibition
of his great skill, and of his valiancy in demanding for the modern ai tist the
same freedom of expression conceded by the official juries to the old masters.