Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) 1863
6’9⅛” x 8’10¼”
There is little so ridiculous and pathetic as the earnest young man. Earnest young men expound at length, forever unaware that they are out of step with the very world they are trying to explain to the rest of us. Instead of using their intelligence like a tool to acquire wisdom and understanding, they wield it like a sword seeking to carve conversational opponents to pieces, to skewer them with a blaze of passionate intensity and language. Then they imagine that later, at leisure, the women of their dreams, overcome by the breadth of their intellect, will sneak into their rooms and roger them until their molars fall out. This is their perfect plan.
In reality, the women have long since grown bored and are now in the back of the bowling alley having it off with the guy who sets the pins. So it is and so it has always been. Young men are mostly silly and young women are all delightful. Manet knew this and used it to tell this story.
Luncheon on the Grass hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It shows us two couples on a picnic in a secluded patch somewhere down a stream or river. We can see the small rowboat that brought them to this spot. We have two gentlemen who are dressed in the fashion of the time for the well to do, upper class. These are day clothes, informal for all they remain a costume. The gentleman to the left, for instance, is wearing white duck trousers which would never do for evening interior wear. The gentleman to the right is equally well made up, right down to the strange fez-beret headgear which he, no doubt, selected to lend himself an exotic, world-traveler’s touch. Within the world of this painting our two young gentlemen are there for each other, they are involved only with each other. They are as thoroughly a couple as if the women did not exist at all. But while the gentleman on the right bloviates at length, punctuating his argument with sharp jabs of his utterly convincing finger, the gentleman to the left seems a little bit startled and unsure.
His discomfort may relate to the nude lady sitting next to him who is looking out at us as if to say, can you believe these idiots? She sits on, what we presume, are the clothes she wore out here, her left leg draped in the gray-blue fabric. She is absolutely and thoroughly at ease. Her friend stands in the stream above wearing only a chemise. She is bent over, her hands playing in the water. She, too, is at ease. The women may as well be here by themselves for all the attention they receive. The men, wrapped up in their own self images, are simply too uptight to get with the program. The woman who looks at us seems to find this a little amusing and a little tiresome.
I remember a young fellow a few years back. There were four of us working together: two young, pretty girls, this fellow, barely out of his teens, and me, the old guy. During the course of conversation he declared that he could not tolerate it when he was at a movie on a date and his date wanted to make out. By George, they had come to see a movie, and they owed that artwork some respect. I tried to remember if I had been that big a twit when I was that age, and sadly, I had to admit I probably had been. I gently pointed out to the fellow that one could always buy another ticket to see the movie, but with human beings you often don’t get mulligans. He genuinely did not understand my point. The two gentlemen in this painting would have welcomed him as a brother.
Do I think Manet was addressing the silly stuffiness of the self-anointed, well-to-do pseudo-intellectual? No, I think he was expressing a general disgust with young men of every social clime who waste their youth with silly displays of preening as if they were still at the intellectual level of birds, instead of recognizing the opportunity that exists right now, today, and grabbing it with both hands. Not merely in matters of love are young men blind. They readily accept proscriptive rules that dictate how they should dress and behave so they can belong and feel safe, preferring the stuffiness of formality to the delight and sensuality of spontaneous discovery and embrace.
I have to believe Manet said exactly what he meant to say. This is an enormous picture, and he included exactly what he meant to include, excluded what he meant to exclude. This is a picnic in France and there is no wine. Two men in the prime of life sit next to a voluptuous, beautiful, naked woman and they do not even touch her. This painting caused a sensation when first released, and was condemned by many in the art community who found it unnaturally prurient and sensuous. I think it is the opposite. What is unnatural in this painting is the denial of the senses, that pretending you are above desire somehow makes you superior. It doesn’t. It makes you a lunatic.
Look at them. They have brought a feast of bread and cheese and fruit and they have not taken a single bite.