‘It was the way this was just an ordinary woman that caused the uproar. Not an angel, not a goddess, but an ordinary woman staring out of the painting at the viewer, naked and as bold as bold can be!’ [Josette in ‘Orphan Rock’ – Transit Lounge, March 2022]


In the above quote, Josette is talking about Édouard Manet’s painting Le Bain – a painting which sparked public notoriety and controversy at the time, but ended up a manifesto of modern art.

‘Birth of Venus’ by Alexandre Cabanel, exhibited at the 1863 Paris Salon

1863 was a revolutionary year for the artists of Paris. Up until then, the French government and the Académie Royal de Peinture et Sculpture [the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture] held a yearly Paris Salon, showcasing that year’s best art – as per the Academy’s standards. With over 12,000 artists working in Paris alone at the time, competition was fierce; to be included in the exhibition was a sign of royal favour and guaranteed governmental and private commissions for the artist. The Academy judges, however, were known to be conservative and to favour paintings in the classical style – they wanted the paintings to be almost photographic in their realism, in that brush-strokes were not to be noticeable. In addition, they favoured historical or literary Classicism, with the subject matter usually idealised. Paintings were also judged by specific categories: historical topic ranked the most favourably, along with religious or mythological topics, followed by portraiture, then landscapes, then genre scenes [ie: paintings of everyday life depicted by ordinary people engaged in common activities], and finally still-lifes, which were regarded the least favourably. Anything outside those parameters – either in topic or in style – was rejected.

Napoleon III

That year, more than 5,000 paintings were entered, but only 2,218 were chosen to be exhibited. The rejected artists protested so vehemently that their complaints reached Emperor Napoleon III [Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte]. Ever sensitive to public opinion, and wanting to appear tolerant of liberalism, Napoleon decided that a new exhibition would be organised in another part of the Palace of Industry, showing the paintings and sculptures that had been rejected by the Salon, so that the public could judge for themselves whether the Academy had been right to reject them. It was called the Salon des Refusés – the Exhibition of the Rejected.

‘Le Bain’, Édouard Manet, 1863, exhibited at the first Salon des Refusés

Seven hundred and eighty works were exhibited there, including works by Courbet, Cezanne, Pissarro, Whistler and Fantin-Latour. And dominating this exhibition was Édouard Manet’s oil painting titled ‘Le Bain’ [The Bath] – later known as ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe’. It was a large oil on canvas, 208 x 264.5 cms large, of a naked woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men. It caused a public scandal amongst Parisians who called it amoral and decadent, because this was no Greek goddess or Empress, but an ordinary woman staring out at the viewer. In the background of the painting, another woman, clad in a chemise, washed herself in the stream – again, no Venus here, simply a woman performing a private act in a public setting. What offended people was that all of the subjects of this painting were not goddesses or emperors, but ordinary Parisians. Many believed the naked woman to be a prostitute, and the setting to be the Bois de Boulogne – a large park on the western side of the city – and that the painting depicted the rampant prostitution present in the park at that time. Though everyone knew of this, the subject was considered taboo in polite company, and definitely not suitable for a painting. But in reality, the man on the right was modelled by Manet’s brothers, Gustave and Eugène, the man looking out is Manet’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, the sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff, and instead of being a prostitute, the naked woman looking at the viewer is Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favourite model and an artist in her own right, whose work was frequently exhibited at the Paris Salon.

Since first exhibited more than a hundred-and-fifty years ago, artists and critics alike have continued to interpret various meanings in the painting, and scholars have written about the work from a feminist, formalist, or Marxist lense. But whatever the interpretation, many also agree that what Manet wanted to show in this work was contemporary life and the rapid breakdown of the traditional social order that was happening at the time.

‘Portrait of Édouard Manet’ by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1867

Manet was forty at the time of the first Salon des Refusés, and he’d spent years unsuccessfully seeking the attention of the Paris’ élites. With Le Bain, however, he suddenly found fame. Though the public ridiculed his painting, and critics panned it – the critic Ernest-Alfred Chesneau, for example, saying it had ‘all the unpalatability of green fruits that will never ripen’ – the work won instead the enthusiastic approval of younger artists and it became a symbol of modernism and the avant-garde, with Manet becoming their unofficial leader. As for the Salon des Refusés, this – and further exhibitions – broke the official power of the Salon and the Academy and, by consequence, Academic art. It also legitimised the emergence of avant-garde art, and it highlighted the need for alternative exhibitions. #history #histfic #HistoricalFiction #Art #ArtHistory #Manet