In Paris, Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe was causing a stir at the 1863 Salon des Refusés. The painting was a huge success, despite its historic and pastoral overtones and allusions to works by Titian (c.1487–1576) and Giorgione (c.1476–1510). Controversy was caused by the juxtaposition of a nude woman with a pair of clothed men seated in a landscape. Manet was hugely inspirational to younger artists, bucking the Salon’s traditions of exhibiting paintings of highly idealized mythological and historical subjects in a minutely detailed, smooth and realistic style. Monet, who had a competitive streak, embarked on his own Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the spring of 1865. He returned to Chaillyen-Bière, near Fontainebleau, and began sketches for his new large-scale painting, planned for a canvas of nearly four by six metres.
In a 1989 article, art historian R. R. Bernier described Monet’s work as a battle of ‘the preliminary sketch versus the finished picture’. In the three works below we can see the path a particular work has taken from its inception to a more finished and worked state, and the role played by drawing in this journey. Monet began sketches for Déjeuner sur l’herbe in Chailly but did not start painting his canvas until returning to his Paris studio in the autumn. Ultimately the painting was not a success. Despite its being inspired by Courbet’s large-scale paintings, Courbet himself criticised the work when he visited Monet’s studio. Monet was unable to finish it in time for the 1866 Salon and eventually abandoned the work. It exists now only in fragments. The experience did, however, contribute to Monet’s realisation that to capture the fleeting moment in time, he would have to work on a smaller scale.
Claude Monet, The Luncheon on the Grass, c. 1865. Black chalk on blue-grey laid paper, 305 x 468 mm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon.
The Luncheon on the Grass, is a sketchily drawn composition of the planned painting. Monet’s hand is very evident in the roughness and quickness of the drawing. His aim for the work seems to have been to combine the natural, pastoral setting – favoured by the Barbizon painters in their own paintings of Fontainebleau – with a study of everyday, lifesize people interacting with one another. In other words, he is fusing the genres of landscape and portraiture and placing the subject of modern life on a heroic scale, as well as embarking on what was to become the Impressionists’ key aim: to catch a transitory moment in time.
Claude Monet, Bazille and Camille (Study for "Luncheon on the Grass"), c. 1865. Oil on canvas, 93.5 x 69.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection. Photo © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Bazille and Camille (study for Déjeuner sur l’herbe), is a painted study for the final painting. Camille has been very nearly transposed from the chalk drawing into this oil but there does seem to be an interaction between the two figures. Notice how the dappled, light-green leaves in the upper right-hand corner interact with the dark, lacy branches in the bottom left. The overall effect of the painting is one of freshness and light, despite the large areas of very dark shading.
Monet’s work in the mid-1860s was not limited to oil paintings executed on this almost monumental scale. Two of his large landscapes, The Seine Estuary at Honfleur and The Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide, had gained admission to the 1865 Salon, and this taste of academic success was probably a key element in his desire to create something as ambitious as Déjeuner sur l’herbe. At this early stage in his career, Monet may have felt he needed to create something striking enough to cement his reputation and daring enough to become a talking point. However, it is interesting to note that while his Normandy seascapes did gain him recognition with the Salon, Déjeuner sur l’herbe was not a success – it was left rolled up, unfinished and was eventually partly damaged by moisture. It now exists only in fragments.
Although the vast majority of Monet’s drawings as a mature artist were meant to be private and for preparatory purposes only, this pen and ink drawing seems to be a finished work in its own right. Paint, chalk and pencil allow an artist to create more subtle nuances than ink.
In this graphic drawing, Monet has created texture and volume with line. The most solid marks in this drawing seem to be reserved for the outline of forms, such as around the waves, sailboats and horizon. Broad expanses of what would be blended colour in another medium, such as the sky, are hatched with quick, sharp, parallel lines. The lower third of the work, comprising the sea, cliffs and boats, is more intensely marked, with larger areas of solid ink. The scribbles and marks in this drawing can be seen as Monet’s handwriting; even his signature seems to mirror the tilt and swirl of the waves.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department Introduction To The Unknown Monet (816 KB) .