The Dream of All Painters

The Luncheon on the Grass is the greatest work of Édouard Manet, one in which he realizes the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape. We know the power with which he vanquished this difficulty. There are some leaves, some tree trunks, and, in the background, a river in which a chemise-wearing woman bathes; in the foreground, two young men are seated across from a second woman who has just exited the water and who dries her naked skin in the open air. This nude woman has scandalized the public, who see only her in the canvas. My God! What indecency: a woman without the slightest covering between two clothed men! That has never been seen. And this belief is a gross error, for in the Louvre there are more than fifty paintings in which are found mixes of persons clothed and nude. But no one goes to the Louvre to be scandalized. The crowd has kept itself moreover from judging The Luncheon on the Grass like a veritable work of art should be judged; they see in it only some people who are having a picnic, finishing bathing, and they believed that the artist had placed an obscene intent in the disposition of the subject, while the artist had simply sought to obtain vibrant oppositions and a straightforward audience. Painters, especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not have this preoccupation with the subject which torments the crowd above all; the subject, for them, is merely a pretext to paint, while for the crowd, the subject alone exists. Thus, assuredly, the nude woman of The Luncheon on the Grass is only there to furnish the artist the occasion to paint a bit of flesh. That which must be seen in the painting is not a luncheon on the grass; it is the entire landscape, with its vigors and its finesses, with its foregrounds so large, so solid, and its backgrounds of a light delicateness; it is this firm modeled flesh under great spots of light, these tissues supple and strong, and particularly this delicious silhouette of a woman wearing a chemise who makes, in the background, an adorable dapple of white in the milieu of green leaves. It is, in short, this vast ensemble, full of atmosphere, this corner of nature rendered with a simplicity so just, all of this admirable page in which an artist has placed all the particular and rare elements which are in him”.

Émile Zola
Zola presents a fictionalized version of the painting and the controversy surrounding it in his novel L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece).

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A Statement in Favor of Individual Freedom

 
 

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) – originally titled Le Bain (The Bath) – is a large oil on canvas painting by Édouard Manet created in 1862 and 1863. Rejected by the Salon jury of 1863, Manet seized the opportunity to exhibit this and two other paintings in the 1863 Salon des Refusés where the painting sparked public notoriety and controversy.

Odilon Redon, for example, did not like it. There is a discussion of it, from this point of view, in Marcel Proust‘s Remembrance of Things Past. One interpretation of the work is that it depicts the rampant prostitution that occurred in the Bois de Boulogne, a large park at the western outskirts of Paris, at the time. This prostitution was common knowledge in Paris, but was considered a taboo subject unsuitable for a painting.

It is not a realist painting in the social or political sense of Honoré Daumier, but it is a statement in favor of the artist’s individual freedom. The shock value of a nude woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men, which was an affront to the propriety of the time, was accentuated by the familiarity of the figures. Manet’s wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, and his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, both posed for the nude woman, who has Meurent’s face, but Leenhoff’s plumper body. Her body is starkly lit and she stares directly at the viewer. The two men are Manet’s brother Gustave Manet and his future brother-in-law, Ferdinand Leenhoff. They are dressed like young dandies. The men seem to be engaged in conversation, ignoring the woman. In front of them, the woman’s clothes, a basket of fruit, and a round loaf of bread are displayed, as in a still life. In the background a lightly clad woman bathes in a stream. Too large in comparison with the figures in the foreground, she seems to float above them. The roughly painted background lacks depth – giving the viewer the impression that the scene is not taking place outdoors, but in a studio. This impression is reinforced by the use of broad “photographic” light, which casts almost no shadows; the lighting of the scene, in fact, is inconsistent and unnatural. The man on the right wears a flat hat with a tassel, of a kind normally worn indoors.

 
 

Judgement of Paris (circa 1515). Engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi to a design by Raphael

 
 

As with the later Olympia (1865), and other works, Manet’s composition reveals his study of the old masters, as the disposition of the main figures is derived from Marcantonio Raimondi‘s engraving The Judgement of Paris (c. 1515) after a drawing by Raphael.

Scholars also cite two works as important precedents for Manet’s painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, The Pastoral Concert, 1508, attributed to either one of the Italian Renaissance masters, Titian or Giorgione, and Giorgione’s The Tempest, both of which are famous Renaissance paintings.

 
 

The Pastoral Concert (c. 1509), attributed to either one of the Italian Renaissance masters, Titian or Giorgione

 
 

The subject was perhaps the allegory of poetry and music: the two women would be an imaginary apparition representing the ideal beauty, stemming from the two men’s fantasy and inspiration. The woman with the glass vase would be the muse of tragic poetry, while the other one would be that of the pastoral poetry. Of the two playing men, the one with the lute would represent the exalted lyric poetry, the other being an ordinary lyricist, according to the distinction made by Aristotle in his Poetics. Another interpretation suggests that the painting is an evocation of the four elements of the natural world (water, fire, earth and air) and their harmonic relationship.

 
 

Giorgione, The Tempest (circa 1508)

 
 

There is no contemporary textual explanation for The Tempest, and ultimately, no definitive reading or interpretation. To some it represents the flight into Egypt; to others, a scene from classical mythology (Paris and Oenone) or from an ancient Greek pastoral novel. According to the Italian scholar Salvatore Settis, the desert city would represent the Paradise, the two characters being Adam and Eve with their son Cain: the lightning, as in ancient Greek and Hebrew times, would represent God who has just ousted them from Eden. Others have proposed a moral allegorical reading, or concluded that Giorgione had no particular subject in mind.

Shopping for Images

Allen Ginsberg. Photo credit: Elsa Dorfman

 
 

A Supermarket in California is a poem by American poet Allen Ginsberg first published in Howl and Other Poems in 1956. In the poem, the narrator imagines visiting a supermarket in California where he finds Federico García Lorca and Walt Whitman shopping

 
 

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be
lonely

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

 
 

Ginsberg as portrayed by Richard Avedon

 
 

A Supermarket in California is both an ode to Ginsberg’s poetic hero and major influence, Walt Whitman, as well as an early experimentation with many of the themes that would dominate his work throughout his career. Whitman, who is considered to be America’s first original poet, was an early influence on Ginsberg’s writing. Whitman, a nineteenth century poet, experimented with meter and rhythm and eschewed the structured line and stanza which was the standard form for poetry of his time.

 
 

 
 

Whitman became known as an eccentric, both for his style of writing as well as his lifestyle. Whitman himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic poets and much of his poetry deals with nature and the encroachment of industrialized society on all that is natural and, in Whitman’s thought, good about America. Additionally, Whitman’s poems often glorified a sexually expressive mode of being, using veiled references to promote both a spiritual and sexual freedom. Like Howl, Whitman’s early poetry, including his most famous work, Leaves of Grass was considered pornographic and obscene by nineteenth century standards. Whitman himself is believed to have been homosexual or bisexual, though those assertions are sometimes challenged by modern Whitman scholarship.

Ginsberg sought to continue Whitman’s legacy stylistically and thematically. Ginsberg’s long line was inspired by Whitman’s use of varying lengths of line and breath. Thematically, Ginsberg sought to continue Whitman’s poetic assault upon industrialized society by writing about the consequences of corporate and industrial growth that Whitman could only foresee in his own work. A Supermarket in California, with its depictions of domesticated life symbolized by food placed out of its natural context, deals with such themes. Additionally, A Supermarket… also alludes to a hidden sexualized world, veiled in the language of commonplace things.