Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863)

Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, Manet's first great masterpiece, has astonished and puzzled spectators ever since it was first exhibited in Paris in 1863 under Manet's title, Le Bain (The Bath in English). Experts unable to make sense of the painting as The Bath then changed its title to Luncheon on the Grass. That was a big mistake. Ever since art scholars have developed various interpretations to explain the painting as a picnic, thinking incorrectly that Manet's eye was like a camera’s. Only when you, the viewer, admit that the scene makes no sense photographically, can you begin to make sense of it artistically. You must think like the painter. Here’s how.

Captions for image(s) above:

Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (originally titled Le Bain) Oil in canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Click image to enlarge.

The 5 visual problems
There are at least five visual problems that scholars nearly always mention but then dismiss as meaningless:
• the bather is out-of-scale.
• a nude woman at a picnic with clothed men is absurd as a scene of modern life.
• the sunlight comes from two directions simultaneously: from above the bather and from behind us, the spectator.
• three of the figures seem unaware of each other; two have dream-like expressions.
• the landscape is broadly brushed and has been criticized as poorly painted

Who are the three principal figures?
Even though the three foreground figures are based on a print after Raphael, Manet changed the direction of the head of the man at left to resemble the self-portrait of an artist (not illustrated here). Since the model for it was also an artist, let us assume that the figure represents an ‘artist’, a painter like Manet’s Mlle. V. Moreover, Victorine Meurend, posing again for the nude, was both a recognized model and looks like one. Indeed all three figures resemble a group in a studio. One scholar even described Victorine as ‘resting between poses’. Another commented that ‘the landscape…is treated in a very casual way, sketched with the brush like a stage set behind the models, who quite obviously are posing in the studio.’ A third has described the painting as ‘a not very-veiled evocation of the painter’s world of the studio’.2 The presumption then that the reclining man is an ‘artist’, as a critic once suggested, seems reasonable.3 If we assume then that he is, an insight can be gained that, in hindsight, turns everything inside out.

Who is the woman bathing?
Do not, though, that the hand of the reclining man unmistakably connects the two women in that his thumb curls towards the bather while his finger points at the nude.4  That link between the two women is important for what has not been recognized: the nude is the bather. They are the same woman.

What, then, are we looking at?
Two ‘artists’ and a model are relaxing in front of a canvas that the nude has just posed for. The bather’s figure is out of scale because it is not ‘real’; it is part of another canvas. The background is a ‘painting’ called The Bath, thus explaining Manet’s title which until now has made no sense at all. It is a scene inside Manet’s mind where the studio and the painting have been fused. This is not just supposition because it addresses each of the visual problems scholars have identified as problems. 
• As we have seen in Horsewoman and other works by Manet, the much-criticized handling of the landscape indicates in its brusque technique that the background is “painted” while the foreground figures are not.
• The lighting, also, is contradictory. The foreground is lit from behind us, by implication a studio window; the background from above, that is ‘painted’ sunlight. Moreover, the presence of the nude, on whom the window-light shines, only makes sense in a studio, not out-of-doors.
• There is also strong evidence that the two women are one. They share the same hair style with an identical parting and hairline, though Manet darkened the bather’s hair to disguise the similarity. Their earrings are the same color and size and hang precisely the same distance from the earlobe. They have the same body types. The ‘live’ model is clearly painted from life in a studio while the ‘painted’ bather, as Carol Armstrong noted, ‘is clearly lifted from art.’ The white fabric by the basket, moreover, is the dress she wore for the painting.
• Finally, the dreamy expressions of the “artist” and “model” are typical depictions of poetic inspiration in an artist’s mind.

Thus, once again, multiple inconsistencies and problems are logically resolved with one answer. Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, one of the most investigated images in the entire history of art, can make sense after all and not just any sense but poetic sense in line with the many other canonical masterpieces explained on EPPH.

There are, at this count, 24 other paintings or drawings by Manet explained in the same manner as Le Déjeuner. To discover how Picasso interpreted Manet's masterpiece the same way, see the entry on his sketches after Le Dejeuner.


Original Publication Date on EPPH: 11 May 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.