Life is no picnic, and when you’re Édouard Manet (1832–1883), you learn a lot about life from a picnic. He disappointed his father, a judge with all the right connections, first by rejecting law as a career, and again when he failed to gain entry to the navy. His father then resigned himself to his training to be a painter in the studio of the academic artist Thomas Couture. It then took Manet five years to get his first paintings accepted for exhibition in the Salon, by which time his father had suffered a severe stroke and was mute and paralysed as a result.
Manet positioned himself and his art in the avant-garde. Henri Fantin-Latour’s superb three-quarter-length portrait of him at the age of thirty-five shows him dapper and immaculately turned-out.
In 1862, Manet painted this unusual outdoor concert in which there’s no visible sign of musicians: Music in the Tuileries. Packed into its rhythmic layout of trees are the members of the fashionable Parisian crowd, who have come to listen to the music, socialise, and chat. Historians have identified many of Manet’s circle among the crowd: the poet Baudelaire, novelist Gautier, composer Offenbach, painter Fantin-Latour, and the artist’s brother Eugène, another painter who married Berthe Morisot, the Impressionist. Others in the crowd have been anonymised, and like many of his paintings it lacks the sparkling finish expected by the Salon.
It was his first major painting of contemporary life in Paris, and was exhibited in March the following year, along with thirteen other works, at his first solo show at Louis Martinet’s gallery. By that time, he was already working on his next painting of contemporary life, that of a picnic.
Conventional paintings of picnics at that time include Jules Noel’s Panorama of the Town of Dieppe (c 1865), a view of a large picnic party on the cliffs overlooking this coastal town.
Eugène Lepoittevin’s Picnic from 1866 captures a picnic’s distinctive combination of the planned and impromptu. This group has lugged crockery, soup and a folding stool for their simple meal sitting on the grass under some trees.
Manet had other intentions, which didn’t go down well when he submitted his finished painting for the Salon of 1863.
In Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), two couples are apparently disinterested in the token picnic of fruit and bread which has spilled out from its basket in the left foreground. As the two men talk, fully dressed, a conspicuously naked woman stares unnervingly at the viewer, and the other woman is washing herself in the river behind. If they have indulged in any fruit, it is of the forbidden kind, and that meal was but a side-order to their main.
When this was rejected by the Salon jury, the excuses offered dodged the central issue that it could be read as a depiction of prostitution, in placing a non-classical nude woman between two clothed men. This was judged an indecency, an obscenity. Added to that is the woman’s gaze.
Manet agreed to exhibit it at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected), a parallel exhibition to the official Salon. This was initiated by Emperor Napoleon III as a result of the outcry when the Selection Committee of the Salon that year rejected 2,783 paintings of the 5000 or so submitted. Among the other notable rejections were paintings by Courbet, Pissarro, Jongkind and Whistler.
Manet was undaunted, and was already pressing ahead with the next painting which was to rock the art establishment, this time when it was hung at the Salon two years later.
When it was exhibited in 1865, Manet’s Olympia (1863) caused uproar. There was no avoiding its interpretation this time, with the same nude model, Victorine Meurent, clearly intended to be a prostitute, flaunting her trade at those who were most likely to have been among her clients.
Having shocked the Salon, Manet’s paintings mellowed.
In 1864, he painted this view of the strange Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama off Cherbourg during the American Civil War. The sinking Alabama is in the centre, flying a white flag of surrender. The Kearsarge appears to be behind and to the left of her, in the midst of smoke from her own guns. Two other vessels are on hand: a small local pilot cutter in the foreground (French according to its flag), and in the distance at the right is the British yacht the Deerhound, which rescued some of the survivors. One survivor in seen swimming from right to left, towards the cutter.
Although this appears to be an authoritative eye-witness account, the artist didn’t see it, but constructed this from descriptions in the press. It was a strange event, and an unusual theme for Manet.
One of Goya’s paintings of two majas on a balcony apparently inspired Manet to paint The Balcony in 1868-69. Its four figures are Berthe Morisot (seated, left) who later became Manet’s sister-in-law, the painter Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet, Fanny Claus (standing, right, with umbrella) a violinist, and in the shadows behind Léon Leenhoff, Manet’s son. This was accepted for the Salon, where it was met with derision.
In 1873, Victorine Meurent appeared fully clad in Le chemin de fer (The Railway), with its background of the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris. This was accepted for the Salon of 1874, again eliciting ridicule and a torrent of sarcastic cartoons in the press.
In recognition of Manet’s persistence and refusal to comprise his art, several of the Impressionists painted their own tributes.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, from about 1893, explores the rich effects of dappled light. But those tributes weren’t half as revolutionary as Manet’s original.
Of all the rejects in this series, it is Manet’s which had greatest impact on painting, and which today is the most revered of them all. After all, it’s the one which really did change the course of art.