Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), known in English as The Luncheon on the Grass, was first shown in this historic exhibition. The artwork not only stirred controversy, it also helped inaugurate a new kind of painting. The canvas, which features two clothed men and two women—one half-dressed and the other nude—picnicking in a verdant grove, has inspired too many interpretations to count. Over the past 156 years, artists and critics alike have continued to generate novel ways to find meaning in what’s now one of Western art history’s most iconic images.
“It’s up to us to make sense of it according to our own priorities and interpretations,” art historian Steven Z. Levine told me recently by phone. The painting “remains precious to us because it gives us the chance to reflect ourselves. We learn about ourselves by writing about the work of art.” Over the decades, scholars have alternately written about the work from feminist, formalist, and Marxist lenses, looking, respectively, at its depiction of women, its position within a larger history of the medium, and its situation within a socioeconomic and political framework.