When news of infuriated rejected artists protesting the Salon jury of 1863 reached the ears of Napoleon III, his office issued the statement: “Numerous complaints have come to the Emperor on the subject of the works of art which were refused by the Jury of the Exposition. His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, have decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry” (Published in Le Moniteur on 24 April 1863). On May 11th, 1863, the Palace of Industry opened its doors to exhibit the artworks of rejected artists, titling it the Salon des Refusés. No one at that time knew how important this exhibit would become to the art world in the years that followed, as thousands of visitors pushed to get into the crowded galleries where the refused paintings were hung. At that very moment in history, however, journalist Émile Zola tells us how the rooms were filled with laughter from the spectators.
Critics and the public ridiculed the refusés from the get-go. For the longest time, the Academy’s strict hierarchy for painting genres ranked historical scenes at the very top of the pyramid. Following these historical scenes were portraits, then landscapes, and finally still lifes at the very bottom. Previous generations of artists worked almost exclusively on commissions from either the church, state, or wealthy patrons. But it was at this turn of the century that we begin to see artists becoming increasingly autonomous, establishing their own unique visions in their artworks.
Enter Édouard Manet and his painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. This painting became the succès de scandale at the exhibition, stirring up lots of controversy amongst spectators. This painting depicts two fully-dressed men and two women; one is nude and at the center of the painting, and the other half-dressed and washing herself by the river in the background. But why the controversy? For one, the painting’s composition drew from studies of old masters such as the Pastoral Concert (ca. 1510) by Giorgone or Titian. The painting is thought to depict an allegory of poetry and music. The two women in the painting would be the imaginary apparitions stemming from the two men’s fantasy and inspiration. In a similar composition and subject matter, Manet turns a mythological scene from the old masters of the Renaissance into the tableau of somewhat suggestive, vulgar Parisian travelers.
As an art historian, Therese Dolan describes, “What Manet does is take on each category… borrowing iconography from Old Master paintings and changing it so dramatically that it looks like a mockery.” The subjects appear to have sneaked out of their homes for a late-night rendezvous, as the title hints at sexual undertones. Manet therefore amplifies these undertones even more by making his central female nude look directly into the viewer’s eyes. Such explicit lust in this painting is what therefore shocked audiences at first glance, never mind the fact that the clothed men seem to be cavorting with women who are most likely none other than sex workers.
With this painting, Manet set a platform for modernist enterprise. “People realized painting was old and needed to change, and Manet was changing it,” Dolan said. “He kicked dirt in the face of the academics.” In the years following its first exhibition, artists from Claude Monet to Pablo Picasso made Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe an integral part of their artistic practices, rendering their own versions at one point.
To end, Alina Cohen from Artsy states:
“Perhaps one of the reasons that the painting has generated such a bevy of scholarship is its uncanny narrative quality. The lusty foursome in a beautiful but unplaceable setting contains all the elements of a captivating story. The characters have escaped the civilized city for the wild woods, enjoyed some sort of sexual activity, and all but forgotten the meal they’ve packed—no one, it seems, has touched the bread, cherries, or other fruit that falls out of the basket on the lower-left-hand side of the painting.
What will happen when they return to Paris? Manet catches the quartet at a quiet moment before the pressures of society, propriety, and class once again constrict their lives. It’s no wonder that French writer Émile Zola was a major advocate of both Manet and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe—the novel nearly writes itself.”