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Manet's Picnic

Ever been to a picnic in the nude? Most people havenít and that is one reason why Manetís masterpiece The Picnic created such controversy when it was unveiled to the public in 1863. The Picnic, which features a nude woman picnicking with two fully-dressed men in the outdoors is quite shocking even in this day and age; you can imagine how it was received amidst the propriety of the late 1800s Ė it was positively scandalous!

Luncheon in the Grass, or The Picnic as it is often called, was painted by Edouard Manet, a French artist who had previously exhibited and won recognition at the French Salon. In this new controversial work of art, the nude woman looks directly at the observer as the two dressed men engage in a conversation with each other. The threesome is situated outdoors in a clearing and some lunch food and clothing are spread out next to them on a blanket. In the background, another woman, scantily dressed, stoops by a small stream.

Manet submitted The Picnic to the French Salon in 1863 but it was refused. Instead, it was displayed at the Salon de Refusťs, a gallery that was launched that very year by Napoleon III for works rejected by the Salon to appease a growing number of disgruntled artists who had also been rejected by the Salon. But even there, Manetís work was an instant object of derision. Public outcry against the painting was so intense that it is actually believed the painting would have been destroyed by the crowd had it not been hung high on the walls of the gallery.

One might think that the inclusion of the nude woman was the reason for its rejection. But The Picnic was not the first painting to feature a nude woman in the presence of clothed men. Two examples of such paintings are Pastoral Concert and The Tempest, both by Giorgione. The reason female nudity was acceptable in these paintings is because the women were behaving modestly. Nudity was also acceptable when it appeared in a mythological or allegorical context. But the woman in The Picnic is gazing directly at the audience with a rather defiant posture and a bold expression, making her appear brazen and therefore, immoral Ė a definite taboo during this time period.

But it was not only the nudity in The Picnic that inflamed Manetís critics Ė it was also his style. Unlike other paintings of the times, Manet chose to paint his scene in rather severe contrasts, without the usual subtle graduations of shading. The light on the nude woman is particularly strong and glaring. Manetís broad blocks of paint are laid rather thickly on the canvas and left largely unblended. The painting also has a drawing-like quality due to the presence of black outlines on some of the figures and objects. And it seems to lack perspective since the woman in the background, the trees, and the boat do not seem proportionally correct. All of these factors indicated to Manetís critics a sloppiness and lack of completeness.

It is quite possible that the critics didnít know that Manet most likely borrowed from a Renaissance master when he composed The Picnic. An examination of Marcatorio Raimondiís copy of Raphaelís The Judgment of Paris reveals a threesome that is strikingly similar to the one in Manetís painting.

It is not known exactly what Manetís intentions were in creating The Picnic; he did not often discuss his paintings publicly and it was therefore assumed his work was that of an inexperienced and incompetent artist who cared little for public decency. But one interpretation of The Picnic is that it designed to be an attack on the hypocrisy of middle-class males who supported the widespread prostitution in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris; it was these same men who were most outraged by the painting when it appeared in public! In any case, most art historians agree that Manetís work signified a considerable departure from the art of the times and represented a pivotal turn toward what we today call Modern Art.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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