Manet took liberties in art that would revolutionize the public notion of what art could do. His rebellious approach to his craft perhaps reminds us of Goya, who used his own imagination to create scenes of fantasy and subconscious symbolism; but Goya, a tragically ruined man, made his art what it was largely on account of the expression of his own pent-up emotion and psychological angst. Manet did it for art, for the building of a philosophical ideal about the expression of the Modern world through art. His paintings, then, are more subjective, more focused on the conceptual accomplishments which a work of art can produce. In a way, this is art for the mind, if that makes sense. Modern painting, starting with Édouard Manet, takes this shift from the practical and utilitarian to the cerebral, the creative, and the ideological.
His painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe is just such an example. This work, famously rejected by salon officials in 1863, was sent into an invented salon of its own, the Salon des refusés, a private exhibition for rejects and censored paintings sanctioned by Napoleon III to allow the French people a chance to see both sides to the contemporary art world: both the accepted and the unacceptable. Manet's grandiose work was among the most famous, or infamous, to be exhibited at the rejects' exhibition of 1863, not to mention one of the single largest artworks to be showcased that year.
This painting is certainly a puzzle. We see a casual luncheon taking place in a secluded park area. The pastoral setting is unusual for Manet, who (you will remember) wanted to paint scenes of everyday urban life among the people. This work, however, is one of fantasy, imagination, and mystery. Alongside two relaxed men (who are apparently in conversation) is a woman, stark naked, looking directly back at the viewer. The men don't seem to notice; the woman's nudity appears perfectly natural, though nothing sexual is taking place in the scene. How could they act so nonchalant in the presence of such immodesty—unless, perhaps, this painting is not what it seems? Clearly, something very strange is going on here. In the backdrop of the landscape, another woman (clothed) is bathing or at least doing something in a shallow pond; but she is disproportionately drawn to her distance from the picnic scene on the grass in the foreground. She's too big, and the landscape, therefore, appears too flat, incongruous, and unrealistic. For one thing, the natural setting of the scene is not painted very detailed at all. Quick, shoddy brushwork and canvas stains suffice to generate a somewhat cartoon-like depiction of two-dimensional trees as one would be able to pick out among other fake, constructed set props for a stage play. After all, we are not in nature here, because we are actually in Manet's studio. The artist painted this; it is his creation, come from his own mind, and we as viewers enter into it as an imaginative journey into the created world of the artist.
Everything about this painting is mysterious, and it's because this is a work of fantasy. We remember Giorgione's The Concert, which delved into the world of the pagan mythic tradition, showing two musicians accompanied by heavenly muses, or spirits, nude and partaking in the scene in imaginative freedom of expression but probably invisible to the two young men. Likewise, the nude woman in this painting here appears to be invisible to the two men, able to sit and exist in the painting but also crossing the threshold of the artwork and the real world outside it almost supernaturally through her outward stare. She is not, strictly speaking, real. But nor is the entire painting. That is why the scene can so randomly take place in a forest that appears flatter than it should with a background that appears closer than it should. The truth of this painting is that we are looking at Manet's studio, or rather the imaginative mind of the artist working within the studio. The biggest hint to this is the sprawled out still life on the bottom left-hand corner of the work, an intentionally inserted genre mixture to no doubt further deconstruct the conventions of painting and of art. Food, a tipped basket, a loaf of bread, and apparently the nude woman's clothes are laid out in this kind of still-life fashion, which is also the most obvious genre of art to be associated with indoor, studio painting. The natural setting is a fiction, the figures, purely imagined. This dream-like painting invokes a wholly unrealistic atmosphere to the viewer because, Manet says, art only exists within the realm of the fantasy, the created, and the invented. This painting came from Manet's head, and he created it; the possibilities are therefore endless. By looking into the work, we are leaving reality and entering into a kind of dreamy fantasy that is the direct invention of the artist, and therefore not liable to be accurate or show things that are necessarily real or true. To put it quite simply, this is the beginning of: you can paint whatever you want.
The fact that the woman is staring out of the painting at us brings to mind a concept that would become increasingly popular later in metacritical Modernist literature known as "breaking the fourth wall." It's a theater term, referring to the setup of the stage. If we imagine a theatrical stage as having three walls (on either sides and behind) and opening in the front to the audience, it might be said that the threshold between stage and audience is a kind of invisible fourth wall, like a window through which the audience gets to see the action of the play. The reason we make the distinction is that there does appear, in works of fiction, to be a "wall" separating the audience from the characters in the play or show; after all, they are performing a work of fiction, and we are existing in the present, in reality. As we operate as onlookers and observers to this separate phenomenon occurring before us, the actors in the fiction seem to not notice us at all because they are existing metaphorically in a different dimension: the fictional and non-real. But when an actor turns to address the audience directly, taking the metaphorical step outside of the fantasy to come back to reality, to our level, it's as if he or she is tearing down that invisible window between worlds. That is why it's called breaking the fourth wall. Most frequently this can be seen in movies; and it's usually a humorous device. Whenever a character breaks from the fiction of the story he or she is in and directly addresses the audience at their level, that character is breaking the fourth wall. I found a funny example of it from this old Superman comic, where the fictional hero breaks away from the story which he's wrapped up in to give his readers a direct message:
It's humorous there, and it often is today as a technique of Postmodern theater style, but the important thing which breaking the fourth wall accomplishes is that it destroys the illusion of fiction and brings the audiences back into the immediate, real world. Manet's nude figure in this painting is certainly within some kind of weird, imaginative, fantasy dream-world, but she breaks the fourth wall and causes viewers to feel self-conscious about their state in the real world. We become aware, in other words, that we are looking at a painting; and Manet wants this to be the case. Remember, his quest is one for truth, and he wants to generate a candid tone of sincerity with the viewer. His paintings are stylized to look flat and disproportionate, and often the characters within his scenes mentally wander away from their own environment by looking off into the distance—looking at us. This dispels the illusion, the suspension of disbelief, and in a way it brings the painting closer to us, by removing itself from itself (if that makes sense).
Frankly, it's hard for me to write about this work of art because I don't completely understand it myself. The artist is clearly playing with ideas of fantasy and imaginative construction that contrast with the ordinary, the everyday, and what we would signify as real or true (such as the two men). I've heard it lectured on, however, as a satirical indictment on Victorianism—i.e., the naked woman seated unashamed with the other men, a statement of women's rights; and the pastoral landscape setting, a kind of Post-Romantic reference to the Greco-Roman mythical tradition of nature as the setting for the fantastical—and honestly this painting is so crazy that I suppose you could make a number of good arguments coming at it from all sides. I don't know. This painting is Manet's grand enigma. However, for now let us glean from it the revolutionary ideal that artists can create from their own free invention whatever they want to paint, since art is not real to begin with—and that they can paint these subjects in different ways, using different techniques other than photorealism. Manet's paintings appear flat and two-dimensional, as I mentioned earlier, because he knows he is painting on a flat canvas. Even in this work, the artist doesn't hide it and allows himself to expand into the fictional, the fantastical, and even the downright baffling. Doesn't it seem really random to you? And yet that is the point. At any rate, your guess is as good as mine. This is one I just don't fully get.