In the first course yesterday, I showed some paintings of meals taken outdoors. For today’s dessert, I start with one of those memorable occasions that we hope never happens.
Léon Frédéric’s Funeral Meal from 1886 shows a large group of mourners sitting outside in the summer sunshine to remember the deceased following their funeral. Their meal is simple if not frugal, and there are neither glasses of wine nor mugs of beer. This is the moment that grace (or perhaps a eulogy) is being read.
Just as Manet and Renoir had depicted outdoor meals in major masterpieces, so they played a similarly key role in Naturalist art.
Now almost forgotten is Émile Friant’s masterpiece The Meurthe Boating Party, also known as Reunion of the Meurthe Boating Party or The Oarsmen of the Meurthe, from 1887. This shows the artist’s watersporting friends eating lunch together on the river Meurthe in Nancy.
This painting can be read as a broad message of well-being and conviviality: healthy, fit young men engaged in team sports; fraternity; and harmony across different classes within society. It was exhibited at the Salon in 1888, and as a result of its success there was featured as a full page in the popular magazine Le Monde Illustré, bringing Friant instant fame across the country.
The Belgian artist Émile Claus fell under the influence of the Impressionists, particularly Monet, Sisley, Renoir, and Pissarro, and came to appreciate the work of Anders Zorn and Le Sidaner. His painting of The Picnic from 1887 is set in the French/Belgian countryside around the River Lys, in the area of Ypres, which was devastated during the First World War. The plain clothing seen indicates that these are poor farmworkers rather than landowners.
Another Impressionist, this time the American William Merritt Chase, caught his young family at their Open Air Breakfast in about 1888. They are seen in the backyard of Chase’s parents’ house in Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn. The artist’s sister-in-law Virginia is lounging in the hammock, as his wife feeds their first child, Alice or ‘Cosy’, in a highchair. Standing on the right is Chase’s sister Hattie, and at the left, asleep on the grass, is the family’s dog.
The German painter of rustic scenes Friedrich Eckenfelder painted this Lunchbreak by the Cottage in 1888, showing a small group of farmworkers sitting in the shade and eating lunch as their horses eat theirs.
Wilhelm Friedenberg’s undated The Goose Girl’s Lunch shows a younger girl, plainly dressed as a ‘peasant’ and barefoot, sat as she enjoys a short break with her lunch. A younger brother, who presumably brought the wicker basket out to her, is fast asleep at her side.
François Flameng’s undated Picnic looks back to an earlier era, probably the eighteenth century, when the biggest question was whether the servants brought the right wine. This is more typical of the original outdoor form of pique-nique, an elaborate meal which had been in preparation for some days, and had to be carried into place in a succession of large hampers.
Given the right setting, you didn’t have to be rich, nor did the surroundings have to be rural.
Antonio Muñoz Degrain’s undated View of the Alhambra shows a group of Granadan women and children picnicking on a patch of grass in the town, as dogs chase one another in the street. Behind them the fiery sunset lights the trees and palace. The most humble meal can be enhanced by its backdrop.
In Picnic, with the original French title of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, from about 1893, Renoir explores the rich effects of dappled light. This work also plays tricks with the viewer: two standing figures to the left come and go as you look at them. Or are they just patterns in the trees and their foliage?
Two paintings from the twentieth century conclude this selection.
George Hendrik Breitner’s Lunch Break at the Building Site in the Van Diemenstraat in Amsterdam (1896-1900) shows small groups of building workers sitting outside on a brighter day during their brief lunchtime break.
Many of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of domestic scenes show meals indoors, or stop short of showing eating at table outdoors. There’s at least one, though, which shows Marthe and friends at a picnic.
Bonnard populates the lower third of By the Sea, Under the Pines (1921) with what looks like a family group: a woman, a dog, and a toddler are in the immediate foreground, and on the far side of their picnic table is Marthe, under a parasol, talking to a man in a white hat.
May you enjoy many meals al fresco this summer, and for many summers to come.