From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914

Late Nineteenth-Century Painting

What was so shocking about Manet’s paintings?

Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) (1863) was couched in art historical tradition, and draws clear connections to a sixteenth-century painting from the Venetian Renaissance called The Pastoral Concert, which also depicts a small gathering of minstrels and partially nude women relaxing in a country setting. The nudity alone was not enough to shock nineteenth-century viewers, but it was apparently the contrast between the well-dressed men and the complete nudity of the central female figure, who stares confidently out form the picture plane, that pushed it over the top. She, and a semi-naked bather in the background, were interpreted as prostitutes. Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe was not a neoclassical work, nor a modest depiction of female beauty as was common from the Renaissance, but a bold portrayal of contemporary figures engaging in what was perceived of as immoral behavior.

Manet’s equally shocking Olympia (1863) also drew on Renaissance predecessors, specifically Titian’s Venus of Urbino, but instead of a demure reclining nude, Manet presented a boldly staring women who confronts the viewer with her nudity. While in Titian’s painting, a small dog (a symbol of loyalty) is curled asleep at the foot of the bed, Manet’s painting includes a black cat with yellow eyes and an arched back. Though both of these paintings were shocking to the public, they were hailed by some, including Emile Zola, as masterpieces for their ability to communicate truth through realism, and for confronting traditional approaches to painting.


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