|Though Édouard Manet never enjoyed popular acceptance and acclaim as an artist, his early masterworks, Olympia and Luncheon in the grass, were a cultural watershed that marked the advent of Modern Art and laid the groundwork for the Impressionistic movement. Both works also ignited a furious public outcry which prompted Manet to lament: The insults rain down on me like hail.
Modern art historians, attempting to explain the furor over these two paintings, look to their cultural context. During the 1860's, although it was common practice for Victorian men to seek paid sexual services, it was quite another for them to be confronted with it. One major reason Luncheon in the grass was so controversial was that many interpreted the scene as referencing the Bois de Boulogne, a large Parisian park. In 1863, when the painting was on exhibition, the Bois de Boulogne was a well-known site for prostitution. For the Parisians, it was one thing to know about the sexual activities in that park, but it was quite another to publicly reveal it. In their eyes, Manet was breaking a closely held sexual taboo.
The judgment of Paris. Marcantonio Raimondi. 1515. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. This painting is the source for Luncheon on the grass. (note lower right side)
The judgment of Paris refers to an episode in the life of Paris, a Trojan prince. The gods chose Paris to decide which goddess -- Hera, Athena or Aphrodite -- was the most beautiful. He chose Aphrodite who then rewarded him with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of the Spartan king. Paris' subseqent abduction of Helen led to the Trojan War.