By Artists For Artists

Traditional to Contemporary: Famous Picnic Paintings

In the new series Traditional to Contemporary, MINUS ART takes a look back at the history of visual arts, exploring different topics and subjects in the works of old masters and contemporary geniuses. If summer was preserved in a single image, it could be that of the globally revered picnic. Who doesn’t love the fusion of friends, family, and al fresco dining in the blessed sunny months? As we dive back in time to see artists’ depictions of the summer pass time, we realize that picnics have always been a favorite way to enjoy nature, fun, and companionship. Take a look at the selection of famous picnic paintings, from traditional to contemporary.

Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Picnic

Picnic, c.1893 (oil on canvas) by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Pierre Auguste Renoir pairs delicately floral pastel hues with vibrant earthy tones to deliver summer to the senses. Sketchy, impressionist brushstrokes create a wonderfully dreamy scene, where finely-dressed women, children, and their dogs enjoy a gorgeous midsummer day with a picnic. The undefined rendering of the painting allows viewers to project their own identities into the image, allowing one to stroll right into the scene and its soft, leisurely simplicity.

Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass

Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, 1863 (oil on canvas) by Edouard Manet

It’s impossible to write about picnics in art without mentioning Edouard Manet’s infamous Luncheon on the Grass (1863) that depicts two scantily clad women enjoying a picnic with two clothed men. This piece was understandably controversial for its time, as many believed the depicted females to be prostitutes. The scandalous artwork was rejected by the Salon jury in 1863 on account of its culturally taboo theme. The piece fuses deep forest mystique with the bourgeoisie gentleman in a strange yet captivating light. Many artists have since recreated the picture in satire or opposition.  

Claude Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass

Section of Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, 1866 (oil on canvas) by Claude Monet

As stated above, many artists took on Manet’s picnic; one of whom was the famous Claude Monet (similar names, very different versions). This depiction, although different in style and technicality, uses the same central play of light highlighting the al fresco diners, enveloped in the wise safety of the trees. It did, however, prove considerably more acceptable for the conservative attitudes of 1865, as the women are fully clothed.

Henri Matisse’s Luxe, calme et volupté

Luxe, calme et volupté, 1904 (oil on canvas) by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Henri Mattisse shows a sumptuous mix of food, flesh, sea, and flora in a bountiful color palette in Richness, calm and pleasure. The piece is similar in its hedonistic nature to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, with a vivid, mosaicked interpretation of a less-than-innocent picnic achieved through repeated small brushstrokes. Note how its calming pastels reflect from the sky over the sea, contrasting with the primary-colored earthiness of the ground and encapsulating the surreal blue-outlined figures. 

Cesar Santos’ Picnic in Central Park

Picnic in Central Park (oil on linen) by Cesar Santos

Oxford defines syncretism as the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought. Cesar Santos portrays this perfectly in his strange and captivating marriage of old and new. This piece is a study of painting mastery throughout the centuries, meeting and juxtaposing with modern themes. Note how the meticulous detail in the human form gives the illusion that this was painted in the renaissance, however, upon closer inspection, the picnic scene shows McDonald’s paper cups, takeout bags, and modern attire. The background is a direct reference to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, with the same mysterious femme in a body of water amongst the trees. This time, however, the male is unclothed — a modern re-imagination of a scandalous classic.

Andrea Kowch’s Tea

Tea (acrylics on canvas) by Andrea Kowch

Andrea Kowch is renowned for her gorgeous true to life form meeting a strange, dystopian nostalgia, and this picnic piece is no exception. Two strange female figures share tea on a vast field of wild grass, joined shamelessly by a goat, which seems welcome at the picnic on account of his teacup. A keen sense of looming makes this picnic neither inviting nor pleasant, but one cannot help being captivated by its strange darkness and old American aesthetic.

Akiko Ida & Pierre Javelle’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe

Déjeuner sur l’herbe (chromogenic print) by Akiko Ida & Pierre Javelle (Minimiam)

This innovative and satirical photograph take on a Manet’s picnic is as charming as it is tiny. Miniature clay figurines (a miniature Manet included painting the scene in real-time) are surrounded by giant food and paper plates. Quite literally inside the picnic, nude ladies and an ethnically diverse skin color palette renew the classic in this clever and funky modern twist. 

Article written by Kate Smith

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