Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet

Publié le 5 April 2023
Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet was born in Paris in 1832. He was one of the precursors of Impressionism and the son of a high ranking republican civil servant. And to think that he almost didn't become one of the greatest painters, because he wanted to become a sailor! He entered the Navy after leaving college. Fortunately for us, he failed the competitive examination for the Naval School once, but he persisted! It was only after failing the exam for a second time that he decided to abandon his career as a sailor and take up painting for good. Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, painted in 1863, caused a huge scandal at the time because it shocked the bourgeoisie. Today, it is considered one of the masterpieces of modern art.

This painting was exhibited at the "Salon des Refusés" (Salon of the Rejected) ... where works rejected by the official Salon are presented. It earned Manet a sulphurous reputation because the scene scandalised. Two men dressed in contemporary clothes are sitting next to a completely naked woman in a wooded landscape. Obscene! was the judgement at the time. The work caused a scandal at the time because, for once, the presence of a naked woman did not represent an allegorical or mythological context. She was ridiculed and insulted with rare violence, which affected Manet. Fortunately, some people were able to see the modernity of this work. Provocation was not Manet's aim, however. His approach was dictated by sincerity. "I did what I saw", he wrote in his defence.

Which painting was Manet inspired by?

However, Manet was inspired by a painting exhibited in the Louvre: "The Country Concert". Painted by Titian three centuries earlier, it did not shock anyone, although it also showed a naked woman sitting next to two clothed men. But there is a major difference: in Titian's work, the naked woman represents an allegory, an idea... she embodies poetry, so she is not real. Unlike Manet, where the realism of this scene is deeply shocking: the natural attitude of the men and this naked woman posing without modesty and challenging the viewer with her gaze.

Le Concert champêtre de Titien (around 1509)

Here again, Manet played with his great classical culture: he was inspired by an engraving of a lost painting by Raphael, "le Jugement de Pâris". The positions of the three figures are exactly the same.

Le Jugement de Pâris, Raphaël (between 1514 and 1518)

In fact, Edouard Manet had fun transforming deities into bourgeois picnickers... Just to denounce the great hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie regarding nudity in painting. Two years later, with Olympia, Manet drove the point home.

-50% off for 1 YEAR on
our streaming platform with the code

This article was written based on the French series My little Museum which tells the great History of Art on our streaming platform Museum TV.

Where can I find this work?

"Le déjeuner sur l'herbe" is on display at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.