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Keeping Cool in 1863

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard ManetPictured above are four Parisians who found a way to escape the sweltering heat of the city. Well, at least two of party have found a way to keep cool.  These four are rather like a certain quartet of musicians who had a picnic in 1510; the women were bare naked but the men were smothered in velvet. All that’s further down this page.  Now pay attention to the painting above.  The woman in the background clearly enjoys wading in the stream and isn’t concerned that her chemise — what exactly is she wearing? —  gets soaked. And the bold young woman in the foreground has tossed aside convention and all her clothes. You’re cool or you’re not, right?

But the men! Look at them — suffocating in tight collars, heavy jackets, cravats, hats, shoes and, though you can’t make it out in this small image, the one on the right is even wearing a vest. These guys haven’t got a clue.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here. The scene was painted by Edouard Manet around 1862-1863. He named the painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) and, in fact, along side the discarded clothing there’s a basket of fruit and a round loaf of bread.  But no one is eating.  And whatever the guy on the right is saying it’s clear that he’s lost the attention of his naked lunch date. She’s more interested in us. And, you know, we’re more interested in her.

Manet wasn’t having any luck getting his paintings shown when he captured this interesting picnic. His work was rejected year after year by the gate-keepers of the government-sponsored show at the Palais des Champs-Elysees. That exhibit, or Salon, was visited by thousands of Parisians and it was virtually impossible for a painter to make a living if he didn’t succeed there. The jurors were generally conservatives and Manet was one of several artists whose work was rejected by the Salon. In 1863 so many paintings were turned down that the government, giving in to the artists’ bitter complaints, sponsored an alternative exhibit for the rejected paintings, the famous Salon des Refuses.  That’s where Manet exhibited this painting.

Manet’s scene was inspired in part by Giorgione’s painting of a similar quartet 1510. We have an image of that painting further down this page. We’re not suggesting you try this at your local picnic grounds or National Park. We’re not stupid. We know there must be better places. You’re cool or you’re not, right?

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.