“Luncheon on the Grass,” who does not think of Édouard Manet’s famous Déjeuner sur l’herbe? Manet’s painting features a female nude seated next to two fully dressed-up male figures picnicking on the grass. The woman and the male figure on the left are gazing at the viewer, a second woman is shown in the back bent over and standing in a river. The work was rejected by the official Salon in Paris in 1863 – allegedly on moral grounds. Despite the rejection Manet’s work fared well as it joined other masterpieces at the Salon des Refusés, which gave it even greater exposure.
Much is known about later paintings inspired by Manet’s motif. Suffice it to mention Monet’s chaste (all female figures are fully covered) Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1865-1866) and Paul Cézanne’s later reworking of the same theme (1876-1877). Many more “Luncheons” followed up to the 20th century, the most fascinating ones may be Picasso’s numerous, almost obsessive variations of Manet’s Déjeuner (alone the paintings number 27).
One is, however, less well informed of historical precedents of the motif. Among the paintings discussed in this context one finds commonly Giorgione’s The Tempest (1508), Titian’s The Pastoral Concert (1510), and an engraving by Marcantonio Raimundi showing Raphael’s The Judgment of Paris (ca. 1515).
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This is where I would like to introduce a most delicate painting that has been in my family for several generations and actually shows a luncheon on the grass shared by three figures, two men and a woman. In my family the painting came to be known as "The Picnic of Henry IV." It has never been exhibited but may have been seen by Manet in my great-great-parents’ Parisian home.
Art historians are yet to examine the age of “The Picnic of Henry IV” and if, indeed, it features le bon roi Henri (1553-1610) as this king is referred to in French sources. Clothes, hairstyle, and the one protruding shoe of the man in red breeches suggest late 17th century fashion, but was the painting executed in that period? One thing seems clear, the work shows a most intimate gathering of aristocrats relaxing and enjoying a simple meal outdoor. Supposedly, the reclined figure is the more important personage to whom the man with the white headdress and red breeches pours some more wine, while the woman on the right is bringing her glass to her lips. The artist gave much attention to details. The laces, the shirt pattern of the middle figure visible only in magnification, the flow of red wine about to reach the glass, the blue ribbons in the lady’s hair matching the blue color of her dress, this all suggests the sure hand of a master painter.
Beside the luncheon theme, there are more elements reminiscent of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The composition with its division of the figures in two and one, two men and one woman, two sitting and one reclining is a mirror reflection of Manet’s design. In the juxtaposition of the two paintings below Manet's Déjeuner has been flipped.
Another parallel may be drawn between the intriguing turban-like headdress of the central figure and the fancy headwear of the man on the right in Manet’s Déjeuner. One may also want to point out the surrounding trees in both paintings. They frame the scene as if to protect the intimacy of the setting.
Without any question, “The Picnic of Henry IV” needs to take its rightful place in the history of painted luncheons on the grass. As a matter of fact, all evidence points to it as one of the earliest, if not the first Déjeuner sur l’herbe.