When reading our recent post on the NBMAA’s new acquisition of a work by William T. Wiley, one is reminded of another re-interpreted painting, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet. However, the Wiley and Manet are opposites. While the Wiley is a modern reinterpretation of a masterpiece by a Northern Renaissance master, the Manet is the original from the 1860s that has inspired dozens of reinterpretations over the past 150 years.
Manet’s painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe caused quite a stir at the Salons des Refusés in 1863. At the time it was not acceptable to paint nudes in contemporary settings, although it was acceptable to have nudes depicted in allegorical settings or as mythological creatures such as nymphs. In this painting, the female model does not conform to these traditional ideas and she is also looking straight at the viewer which was frowned upon since nude models usually averted their gaze to show their shame at being nude. This was the first time that a painting showed a nude female sitter with clothed male sitters.
Another controversy associated with Le déjeuner sur l’herbe was its size since 7 by 8½ feet was too large to make it a genre painting. It was painted in a modern style and therefore could not be considered a pastoral piece. Usually artists would use large-size canvases to depict important events of mythological, religious or historical importance. Manet blatantly ignored this tradition by using a large canvas to depict his scene of ordinary life.
Manet used Victorine Meurent as a model in this painting. She appears frequently in his paintings. Ferdinand Leenhoff, Manet’s brother in law, is depicted as the man sitting next to the woman in the foreground. Eugene, Manet’s younger brother, is the man sitting on the right side of the painting. The fact that the sitters were so recognizable also affronted viewers at the time. These were not anonymous muses. They were real individuals shown in an explicit scene.
The two men seem to be engaged in a conversation, ignoring the nude woman sitting next to them. The lightly clad woman in background is too large when compared to the three figures in the foreground. She also seems to be floating. Since the background is crudely painted, the viewer gets the impression that the painting was painted indoors. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe also shows “photographic lighting,” which does not cast much shadow and also eliminates mid-tone colors. Overall the lighting of the scene is unnatural as well as inconsistent.
The Musée d’Orsay’s website sums it up well by stating that:
Manet’s refusal to conform to convention and his initiation of a new freedom from traditional subjects and modes of representation – can perhaps be considered as the departure point for Modern Art.
According to Antonin Proust, a friend of Manet’s, the painter got the idea for this painting while observing bathers at Argenteuil. The scene reminded Manet of Le Concert champêtre by Giorgione (now attributed to Titian), which he had copied while studying with Thomas Couture. Manet told Proust that:
I want to re-do it and to re-do it with a transparent atmosphere with people like those you see over there. I know it’s going to be attacked but they can say what they like.
Another inspiration for this piece was the Judgment of Paris by Raphael, which shows three river gods positioned in the bottom right corner of the engraving. Manet used this very same position for his three sitters.
Gustave Courbet’s Ladies on the Banks of the Seine was also an important predecessor to Manet’s painting. Courbet showed Parisian women in the countryside and thereby weakened the belief that rural life would be undisturbed by modern urban ideas. Since villages were considered independent changeless environments, this scene of fashionable (and scantily clad) Parisians relaxing in the countryside shatters the illusion that villages wereimmune to modernity.
Following are various artists that have re-interpreted Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe:
Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Claude Monet is in the Permanent Collection of the Musée d’Orsay.
Luncheon on the Grass, After Manet is part of the Permanent Collection of The Museum of Modern Art and currently on view in an exhibition entitled Picasso: Variations and Themes on view until September 30, 2010.
De Andrea’s sculpture, Manet: Déjeuner sur l’Herbe is part of the Speed Museum’s Permanent Collection.
Déjeuner Déjá Vu and several other sculptures based on famous paintings by Johnson are on view at the Grounds For Sculpture.
A different type of appropriation of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe can be seen on the album cover for The Last of the Mohicans by Bow Wow Wow. The band initially planned on using the photograph for the cover of See Jungle!. The photograph caused quite a commotion due to the underage singer, Annabella Lwin, posing nude. Lwin’s mother tried to prevent the release of the cover and due to her intervention a different cover was used for the US release of See Jungle!. The band’s manager, Malcom McLaren succeeded in having Andy Earl’s photograph featured on the cover of The Last of the Mohicans for a world-wide release.
Can you think of any other paintings or other artworks that have been re-interpreted just like Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe? Maybe you can even think of artworks that were used for album covers? These numerous examples of artworks inspired by a single painting demonstrate how artists constantly look backwards for inspiration. The Wiley is an excellent example of a modern interpretation of an old master work. By starting with a powerful image that has held its own over the centuries, many artist empower their own visions and messages. What do you think about this theme of appropriation? Does it make the resulting artworks more original? Less? What are the pros and cons?