These Impressionist Picnics offer a much-needed breath of fresh spring. People have been eating meals outdoors for centuries. By the early 1800s picnics as we know them were gaining popularity across Europe and America. By the 1870s, railways and ferries ran Sunday excursions from towns to the country and seaside, making picnics accessible to the masses.
Each of the following Impressionist Picnics has its own flavor. Manet’s unconventional tableau outraged the public. Monet depicted the graceful enjoyment of an elegant meal outdoors. Renoir’s sensual picnic took place on a riverboat. His was a tribute to blissful camaraderie.
Manet’s luncheon tableau was not the generous spread outlined in Mrs. Beaton’s popular cookbooks. His was an intimate scene. In it, two fully dressed bourgeois gentlemen converse. Meanwhile their nude female companion stares almost belligerently at viewers. Her shameless gaze infuriated the public.
The Salon jury of 1863 rejected Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. When exhibited at the Salon des Refuses, it sparked controversy and sarcasm. Manet spurned the classical view that art must honor established conventions while striving to achieve timelessness. Instead, he revealed the under belly of Parisian society just as he perceived it.
His model was Victorine Meurent. She posed for nine paintings by Manet as well as several other artists, making her recognizable in Paris. Her willingness to appear nude while staring boldly at the viewer made her a notorious figure.
Manet’s Olympia also triggered a scandal at the Paris Salon in May of 1865. In this painting Meurent plays a prostitute. Instead of a modest woman shrinking from her nudity, Olympia is a businesswoman, shamelessly confident as she glares disdainfully at her next customer.
Manet painted several Impressionist picnics. This depicts twelve fashionably dressed young people. His is a more traditional, upscale affair with a sumptuous feast displayed on a white blanket. Light sparkles through deciduous trees and falls onto flirtatious revelers.
Monet painted his own version of Luncheon On The Grass two years after Manet’s. It was both a tribute and a challenge to Manet. It was also an attempt to establish his separate identity after his name was confused with the older artist.
Monet started the painting in the spring of 1865. First he produced a series of small studies followed by a more finished sketch in his studio. In the second version, Monet replaced a young man sitting on the tablecloth with a muscular bearded man. That figure is Gustave Courbet.
Dissatisfied with the almost completed work, he refused to show it at the Salon of 1865. Instead, he cut the canvas into three parts. Two of the surviving fragments hang in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
According to the Musée d’Orsay, Monet later recounted a slightly different version of what happened to his painting. Because he was down on his luck and had to pay rent, he said that he gave it to his landlord as security. The landlord rolled it up and stashed it in his cellar. When Monet finally had enough money to buy it back in 1884, it had suffered mold damage. Monet cut the painting, retaining only three fragments. The third has now disappeared.
At the same time as the large canvas Monet painted a smaller version, which hangs in the Pushkin Museum.
Shown in the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882, critics generally considered this one of Renoir’s best works.
In it he depicts a variation on Impressionist Picnics. This is a floating picnic aboard a riverboat on the Seine River in Chatou, France. It is a group of 14 friends and colleagues plus one small dog. All are enjoying good food and wine on a balcony at the Maison Fournaise restaurant.
This diverse group represented modern Parisian society. Among them: businessmen, socialites and shop girls, actresses and artists, writers and critics.
Organizing 14 people from diverse walks of life to sit for a painting was as difficult in 1880 as it would be today. To accomplish the intricate scene, Renoir painted individual figures and models when they were available. He spent months making changes to the canvas and added the striped awning at the end. Despite the long, cumbersome process, the composition maintains its spontaneity.
In 1923 industrialist Duncan Phillips purchased the painting after a decade-long pursuit. It now remains in The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.. In their exhibition, Renoir and Friends, they untangled the story of the painting’s creation. Using advanced scientific techniques including X-ray and infrared analysis, they revealed Renoir’s process, including sections he reworked or painted over entirely.
According to the Phillips collection:
“The artist complains, for instance, about the “impudence” of one woman sitting for the painting next to the affenpinscher, whom he ultimately replaces with a model by the name of Aline Charigot (who, conversely, would go on to become Renoir’s wife).
In 1912 Julius Meier-Graefe identified the various people in the painting. An interactive version that identifies each person is available in Wikipedia.
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