Ever since Édouard Manet revealed his almost mysterious painting The Luncheon on the Grass, or Le Dejéuner Sur l’herbe, at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, it has fascinated artists and viewers alike. The scene is simple enough: three people are seated on the grass after just having eaten lunch. It is exactly what the title says it is. But it’s not quite that simple. The painting leaves the viewer with questions that it never answers. Perhaps that’s why it has been studied and copied ever since, by artists from Pablo Picasso to Mickalene Thomas.
Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass
Édouard Manet was one of the most famous and influential painters of the 19th century. His style bridged the gap between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism with his often revolutionary works. Perhaps his most famous painting is The Luncheon on the Grass. Here, Manet drew inspiration from Masters of the Past. He was particularly inspired by The Judgement of Paris by Marcantonio Raimondo and an unnamed drawing by Raphael. And just as Manet drew inspiration from the past, this painting has inspired artists ever since.
Perhaps the reason for that is that the simple scene leaves the viewer with so many questions. Why is the seated woman naked when the two men are clothed? It seems that Manet wants us to recognize her as a sex worker; does that mean she just had sex with one or both of the men? If so, why are they now clothed while she’s naked? And why is she looking directly out at us with her curious, Mona Lisa-like smile?
The painting presents these and other unanswered questions. But it is precisely this inscrutability that has led it to be copied and reimagined by artists from the 19th century to now. Here are some of the works inspired by Manet’s masterpiece.
1. Claude Monet’s Le Dejéuner Sur l’herbe
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Claude Monet was a contemporary of Manet and ground zero in the Impressionist Movement. It was his 1874 painting, Impression, Sunrise, that earned this style the pejorative label of Impressionism. Manet said of him that he was only an eye, meaning that he painted what he saw with little of the interpretation Manet employed. But he used that eye to paint a voluminous collection of mostly nature scenes among the most beautiful ever put to canvas.
He was also younger than Manet and looked up to him as an established artist. So it is no surprise that he was the first to take inspiration from Le Dejéuner Sur l’herbe. But in his 1866 version, he removed the shocking sight of the naked woman. Instead, he replaced her with a woman so fully clothed it looks as if her dress became the tablecloth. He also created a more crowded scene in this unfinished work by including twelve figures. It is a classic Monet work with its unmistakable elements of Impressionism while also being an homage to Manet. The two works are very different, but Monet left no doubt of his inspiration by giving his piece the same name as Manet.
2. James Tissot’s The Foursome
James Tissot was also a contemporary of Manet’s but with a completely different oeuvre. Tissot was an illustrator and caricaturist as well as a painter, his drawings appearing regularly in Vanity Fair. His choice of subjects was also very different. Manet painted citizens and soldiers, while Tissot was famous for his images of European high society. The Frenchman spent his early years in Paris before moving permanently to London.
But not before he found inspiration in both Manet’s and Monet’s versions of the painting. In Tissot’s version, he repurposed the gathering. Manet critiqued society by exposing the sexual undercurrent of modern Paris life. Tissot takes a similar tack, but here his critique is of modern society’s rapid economic change. That’s why the subjects sit in ill-fitting clothing, too big for their frames. Together they show the absurdity of the newly wealthy and their bourgeois lifestyles.
While Tissot kept Manet’s figure that looks out at us, he added a person in revolutionary clothing. His intention seems clear: to show that his society was emulating a time during the revolution that was judged as overindulgent and anti-republican. Altogether, it is a comment on both history and art history.
3. Paul Cezanne’s Le Dejéuner Sur l’herbe
Paul Cezanne’s post-impressionistic style was the next round in the revolution of art. But as he continued to ignore previous conventions with his small, thick brushstrokes, he, too, was roundly criticized. Cezanne, however, continued to push the boundaries of composition, bridging the gap between Impressionism and Cubism, between the 19th and 20th centuries. Both Picasso and Henri Matisse marveled at his work and claimed him as the father of the modern artists of their time.
His version of the work is his most impressionistic painting. It, too, is inscrutable, but for different reasons that leave the viewer with different questions. Here, for instance, we have no idea who these figures are, or what their stations in life are. We certainly question their moods and emotions, but now it is because they are hidden, instead of made clear.
We are also left to wonder about Cezanne’s intent. He didn’t name the painting himself; rather, it was assigned to the painting by others. The scene and their relationship certainly suggest it as an homage to Manet’s painting, but again we are left with questions.
4. Pablo Picasso’s Collection
Spaniard Pablo Picasso is one of the most prolific artists who has ever painted. He helped create a number of new styles, including Cubism. Like Manet, however, he interpreted what he saw to create many works that challenge viewers’ perceptions and create new classifications of art. So it is no surprise that he was inspired by what he saw to be the quintessential masterpiece of its time. In an extremely rare direct reference to any artist, Picasso wrote, When I see Manet’s Lunch on the Grass I tell myself there is pain ahead.
Picasso was so affected by the painting that he didn’t create just one work based on it, but an entire collection. The artist announced his intention in 1932 but then needed 22 years before he was ready to engage with Manet’s masterpiece. He then spent the next 17 years creating sketches, pictures, and paintings, all variations of The Luncheon. Picasso wasn’t just inspired by it, he was challenged by the painting and somewhat obsessed with it.
It is also likely that Picasso was thinking of The Luncheon on the Grass when he painted an even more challenging piece, his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The setting is very different, with Picasso putting these women in a brothel in Spain. But the composition suggests The Luncheon, as does the fact that they are sex workers. Picasso, perhaps needing to go further to shock his newer and even more modern society, makes them all nude. He also goes beyond Manet by having every person look out at us.
His version is also a masterpiece of the early Cubist style. Because of this choice, the faces of the figures are at once both more and less inscrutable than those of his idol, Cezanne. But Picasso goes even further. He clearly drew from both his Iberian roots and the African masks he saw at exhibitions. It’s the way he puts them together here, though, that is so unbound to any previous traditions. Viewers are left to wonder why only the women on the left are in masks. And again, we wonder what the message is about women and sex, whether the point is to empower, degrade, or something else.
5. Herman Braun-Vega’s Les invités sur l’herbe
Manet’s painting continued to inspire artists across time and around the world. Peruvian painter Herman Braun-Vega was one such artist. Vega worked in a very abstract style before moving to Paris in 1968. There he got to see many of the great works by artists such as Monet, Mary Cassatt, Picasso, Cezanne, and others. It was then that he decided to employ a more pictorial style to create more clarity and association. It is both ironic and a sign of how far art had come that it took Impressionist paintings to inspire Vega to paint in a more discernable style.
He made his inspirations clear in his own version of Manet’s painting called Les invités sur l’herbe or The Guests on the Grass. The setting is incredibly similar, even keeping the woman bathing in the background. He added two figures to the original (and a dog), although he made four of the five figures in the foreground naked. Vega also wanted to be clear that he drew from both Picasso and Diego Velazquez by including them as the two naked male figures. Vega’s version is light and playful. It is clearly an homage to artists he admired and only recently discovered, but its meaning is as indiscernible as the pictures that came before it.
6. Mickalene Thomas’s version of Édouard Manet’s Luncheon
Manet’s masterpiece continues to inspire artists from around the world, including Mickalene Thomas. The African-American visual artist often features depictions of African-American women and their roles in society. Known for the sexual energy in her paintings, she looks long into black feminity and black power. Her single biggest influence is Carrie Mae Weems, but like most artists, she has drawn inspiration from a variety of disparate sources.
That list clearly includes Manet. In 2010, she created a massive piece based clearly and directly on his Luncheon. The comment she seems to be making, however, is completely different. First, she reduces the scene to three black women. But her figures are all completely clothed, perhaps in repudiation of the sexualization and exploitation she saw in the original.
Plus, she has all three women staring at the viewer. While we are left to wonder what Manet’s intent was, the strong, resolute faces that look out at us here make a clear statement: we are a powerful force. These women will not be exploited and they will not make apologies. Here, women have gone from the viewed to the viewer.