With this masterpiece, Manet laid the foundations for what we now consider ‘Modern’ art. However, when first displayed it was called incompetent, obscene and a joke. ‘Manet will have talent when he learns how to draw and use perspective’ wrote one critic. Others were outraged by the naked woman – quite obviously, they said, a prostitute – sitting nonchalantly with two nattily dressed men and boldly staring at the spectator. But above all it was what Manet was trying to say with the image that upset people: with it Manet denounced bourgeois hypocrisy and academic art and declared what art should be about: the modern world.
Manet himself came from a Parisian bourgeois background and had studied with a famous academician. But he felt his true masters were the artists he had copied in the Louvre – Hals, Titian, Velazquez and Goya. He was a friend of radical thinkers like Courbet, Baudelaire and Zola and, like them, was a café regular, a flâneur – a witty, gregarious man about town who loved to shock the bourgeois.
Manet submitted this painting of two couples picnicking in the Bois de Boulogne to the Paris Salon of 1863. It was rejected, but so were a record number of other works, causing such a public outcry that Napoleon III declare there would be a Salon des Refusés for rejected works that would take place alongside the official Salon. Many artists, not wanting to be seen as second best, withdrew their work but Manet didn’t, and this painting became one of the most popular on display; but for the wrong reasons. His scandalous work made front-page news and people came in droves to ridicule and indulge their sense of indignation.
It made no difference that Manet had based the image on Old Master works in the Louvre: Titian’s Fete Champetre also featured a naked women with two clothed men in a rural setting; their poses were based on Marcantonio Raimondi’s sixteenth-century print of Raphael’s The Judgement of Paris; and the woman in the background is inspired by Watteau’s The Bathers, which was also the original title of the painting. No one understood what it was about.
Spectators and critics were simply aghast at Manet’s lack of decorum: how could he paint so crude a scene, especially on a large scale usually reserved for the noble genre of history painting? In fact, Manet had specifically drawn on historical sources for his modern scene in order to emphasise the inadequacy of official, academic art that he thought lived in the past. Manet was declaring that artists should depict the world as it is, not as it was or should be. As Manet did not cloak the scene with an allegorical title, spectators found themselves uncomfortably viewing the classical nude for what it was – erotic. Female nudes, excitedly lolling about and called Venus or such, were perfectly acceptable but Manet’s female picnicker was quite simply naked – how shocking!
But what most bothered the viewing public was Manet’s style. It was artificial, they said, two-dimensional, badly modelled, unfinished. The figures seem to hover, unconnected in space. But Manet had done this all on purpose. He left behind the academic focus on illusionistic space and modelling and moved on to explore the abstract qualities of art with bold brushwork, novel contrasts and individual impressions; in other worlds, Modern art. It was shockingly new and audaciously heralded the beginning of a new age of art.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1862 Honoré Daumier: The Third Class Carriage, Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada
1863 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: The Turkish Bath, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1863 Alexandre Cabanel: The Birth of Venus, Paris, Musée d’Orsay