There are few better things in life than a lazy Sunday picnic. Originating from medieval outdoor feasts, the picnic has evolved over the centuries to become a favorite summertime activity—and a subject for art. From Édouard Manet’s legendary Déjeuner sur l’herbe to Joseph Kohnke’s mechanical picnic table in Smart & Final, these seven artists have drawn rich inspiration from the beloved outdoor pastime.
Édouard Manet, Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863)
One of his most famous works, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, has been a subject of interest and influence in the art world for decades. Depicting two nude women picnicking with clothed men, the painting first sparked controversy when it was rejected from the Salon jury of 1863, due to its shocking content. Nevertheless, French writer and naturalist Émile Zola commented that it was Manet’s greatest work of art, “one in which he realizes the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape. We know the power with which he vanquished this difficulty.” The work has been an object of imitation and satire for many other artists, as you’ll see below.
Claude Monet, Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1865-1866)
In what was attempted as a complement and a challenge to Manet’s work, Monet painted his own version of Déjeuner sur l’herbe. This version is considerably less risqué for 1865, as both women in the scene are fully clothed. The painting has an intriguing backstory as it is only a fragment of a much larger work by the artist. It was started in 1865, but abandoned in 1866 because, as Monet later recounted, “I had to pay my rent, I gave it to the landlord as security, and he rolled it up and put it in the cellar. When I finally had enough money to get it back, as you can see, it had gone mouldy.” He then cut it into three pieces, two of which are now in the Musée d’Orsay—the third section is still missing.
Laurent de Brunhoff, “After Manet…,” study for Babar’s Museum of Art (2004)
Famous for his children’s book series, “Babar the Elephant,” Laurent de Brunhoff illustrated iconic paintings, including Déjeuner sur l'herbe, for Babar’s Museum of Art. In an interview with the London Telegraph de Brunhoff said, “It’s funny to have elephants as human beings, but my main point was to do something as faithful as possible to the original painting—so I have to catch the movement of the human body with the elephant, which is not always very easy, especially as you see in the Birth of Venus, which is a little bit sexy.”
Akiko Ida & Pierre Javelle (Minimiam), Déjeuner sur l’herbe (2004)
Food photographers Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle put a playful spin on the diorama by placing miniature figures in a world of oversized food. They take a swing at Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe with a group of miniature people surrounded by an apple core, cracked eggshells, and a half-eaten loaf of bread piled on top of disposable dinnerware and turf grass. The subjects of this interpretation are literally in the picnic. There is even a mini Manet in the foreground painting the models.
Roy Lichtenstein, The White Tree (1980)
Roy Lichtenstein once said, “I suppose I would still prefer to sit under a tree with a picnic basket rather than under a gas pump, but signs and comic strips are interesting as subject matter.” While The White Tree isn’t an exact representation of a picnic, it’s subjects are reminiscent of the nude women in Manet’s picnic piece. Here, four nude models are pictured in a bucolic outdoor setting enjoying the weather. This would make a great space for a breezy summer picnic.
Dexter Dalwood, The Pan European Picnic (2006)
This collaged representation of a picnic merges abstract elements with photorealism. In the bottom half of the painting we see a blurred picnic blanket littered with scraps of paper. Above the blanket is a grassy field, framed by two white formations. It is an isolated, unsettling scene that lacks the comforts of food and good company.
Andrea Kowch, Tea - Print
Midwestern artist Andrea Kowch draws from her native rural landscape to reflect the moods of her female subjects. Tea - Print features two melancholy women with untamed hair. A goat laps liquid from an idle cup while a woman absentmindedly pours tea into an overflowing cup. This picnic, gone awry and rife with metaphors, is less than inviting.
— Newlin Tillotson