I did not remember how much of an influence the painter Manet had on the Impressionists, most of whom he knew. I was reminded of this fact after listening to Christopher Moore’s excellent new book Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art. The author discussed these two paintings, Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. My favorite Manet painting is the The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, which I described in this post from last summer. In order to better explain Manet, I will give some background information on how paintings were exhibited in France in the nineteenth century.
The Academie des Beaux-Arts, or the School of Fine Arts, was the official school of French painting. It was established in 1671, and later merged with the Royal Schools of Painting and Sculpture, Music and Architecture in 1816. According to this website:
“The French Academy (as it is known in art history circles) decided on the ‘official’ art for France. It set the standards under the supervision of a select group of member artists, who were deemed worthy by their peers and the State. The Academy determined what was good art, bad art and even dangerous art! The French Academy protected French culture from ‘corruption’ by rejecting avant-garde tendencies among their students and those who submitted to the annual Salon.”
Famous French painters such as David and Ingres were both members of the Academy. The traditional artwork of the Academy took a classical approach to paintings, especially in regard to subject matter and technique. The Realists, and later the Impressionists, did not want to be part of the official Salon. In fact, this was one of the reasons why the Impressionists were such a crazy departure from the norm of French art. The French Realism movement (1840 – 1870s), “was based on direct observation of the modern world. Realists recorded in often gritty detail the present-day existence of humble people, paralleling related trends in the naturalist literature of Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert.” Famous painters from this movement included Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet.
Edouard Manet was the bridge between the Realist painters and the Impressionists. Though during his lifetime, he considered himself to be a Realist painter, he has been called the father of Impressionism (though he never joined the movement). Manet did not coin the term “Impressionism“; that was taken from a 1872 Monet painting where he used “quick, visible brushstrokes of unblended color, which was adopted as a stylistic hallmark of the movement.” But let’s back up a few years to talk about the Salon des Refuses. In 1863, the French Academy rejected over half of the 2,000+ painting submissions it received for the Salon (the annual exhibition given by the Academy) which ended up in a separate exhibit called “The Salon des Refuses,” or the Salon of the Refused, being created to display all the work that the Academy deemed unfit. Manet submitted Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) to the Academy that year and it was rejected, but made it into the Salon des Refuses, where it caused a humongous scandal.
The Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet, 1863
The painting was supposedly denied to the original Salon of 1863 due to it being too immoral, the then-emperor Napolean III saying “It offends against modesty.” It is interesting to note that the artist considered the nude to be worthy of painting because it was the way to gain fame within the Salon. He originally titled the painting The Bath. Manet wanted to do the nude a different way and, according to this article,
“was clear that he meant to include the people who bathed in the Seine. These would have been the urban poor who had no other recourse for cleanliness or recreation than the city’s river. Manet was also familiar with Giorgione’s Fête champêtre (1508), a country or rustic scene with a theme of humans living in harmony with nature. Apparently, Manet combined the ideal rustic scene with the actual and current way in which ordinary people used nature.”
He was also influenced by Raphael’s drawing The Judgment of Paris, which he most likely had seen from the engraving done by Marcantonio Raimondi. The right bottom grouping of people are the ones he modeled his figures after. In his painting, Manet showed two fully clothed men, most likely students or artists, and one completely nude woman in front with another female bathing in her undergarments in the background. He used Victorine Meurent as the model for both this painting and Olympia, however, as it is explained in this article, “it is clear that it is her head in the painting but it is definitely not her lithe body; it is more likely that the [nude] body belongs to the more curvaceous and ‘love-handled’ Suzanne Leenhof, his wife.”
Not only was it taboo for the woman to be naked with two clothed men, she’s also staring straight out at the viewer. It’s also interesting that the two men seem to be paying no attention to her whatsoever and are in the middle of a vigorous discussion. According to the Musee D’Orsay (where the painting now resides),
“The presence of a nude woman among clothed men is justified neither by mythological nor allegorical precedents. This, and the contemporary dress, rendered the strange and almost unreal scene obscene in the eyes of the public of the day. The painting became the principal attraction [of the Salon des Refuses], generating both laughter and scandal.”
I’m never quite sure if the nude woman is a prostitute or just very confident. Scholars disagree on this point as well. I think, as others have suggested that the women are instead highlighting the prostitution problem in Paris’s parks, a topic that was not discussed in public. If you go off of Christopher Moore’s interpretation, the nude woman just had her way with the two men who are now just going about their day.
Olympia, which was shown two years later in the actual Salon, caused even more scandal. According to PBS, which produced a documentary on the painting, “Many scholars believe that Olympia was admitted to the Salon because jurors didn’t want to be accused of censorship following the strong negative reaction to Déjeuner. Instead, they decided to expose the artist and his work to the wrath of the real critics — the public. As expected, Manet was vilified by Salon-goers. Guards have to be stationed next to it to protect it, until it is moved to a spot high above a doorway, out of reach.”
Manet used one of Titian’s most famous pieces, Venus of Urbino, as well as Goya’s Maja Desnuda as his guide in creating Olympia. The woman in Manet’s painting is a courtesan, and she is portrayed as a real woman of the time period and not as an idealized female, as women were usually portrayed in French Academic art. To better understand the difference between a common prostitute and a courtesan, check this link. In both The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, the nude woman stares directly at the viewer. However, in this painting, it is in a faintly disinterested way as if to say “This is what I am, what of it?” Her black servant has brought her a bouquet of flowers from a client but she isn’t even paying attention to it. She lies on top of a embroidered Oriental shawl and a little black cat at the end of the bed. It wasn’t only the subject matter that disturbed the public and art critics, but also the way Manet handled the paint. “Rejecting his traditional art training, Manet chose instead to paint with bold brush strokes, implied shapes, and vigorous, simplified forms.” He contrasts the bright body of the nude courtesan and the white sheets of her bed, with the complete darkness of the rest of the room. All in all both paintings were ones that challenged the Academy and the way the French people looked at art, and paved the way for the Impressionists.