Emperor Napoleon III derived pleasure in being benevolent. Under
his patronage, the "Salon des Refuses" was held in 1863, an exhibition of
paintings that had not been considered good enough for the official Paris
Salon. Nevertheless, when the Emperor entered the room, he went into a
rage. Who could have painted such a monstrous thing?
When he found out that the painter of the work thus stigmatised was
Edouard Manet, he was not only furious, but appalled. The
Manet came from a hitherto respectable
bourgeois family: His father was a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Justice and his
mother came from a long line of diplomats. Edouard was the Prodigal Son.
Although his family wanted him to study law, he failed the entrance
examination. He was then sent to sea as a cadet on the "Havre et
Guadeloupe" line. Life at sea did not agree with him and he was incapable
of tying nautical knots. Yet he did learn some things that might prove
useful to him as a painter, which was what he now intended to become.
Despite his father's opposition to his plans, the family finally
The cause of the scandal was that the naked figure at her ease enjoying
breakfast outdoors was the naturalistic figure of what could be a real
woman, not an allegorical personification of "Sin" or "Lust" and certainly
not recognisably mythological. The woman represented was obviously modern.
She was in the company of men who were dressed in the fashion of the
latter half of the nineteenth century. In fact, this was a group portrait
of identifiable public figures.
Criticism of the picture was devastating. Public condemnation ranged
from biting irony to malicious chuckles at the artist's expense. Only the
writer Emile Zola and several other open-minded friends of the arts stood up for
Manet, even daring to call him "one of the leading personalities
of the age" and a "courageous man" who had lent the exhibition
"brilliance, intellectual elan, wit and the appeal of the unexpectedly
novel". Today one might be inclined to think that the vehement reaction to
the painting stemmed from the public's annoyance at having been caught out
in collective forbidden fantasies by a sharp-witted voyeur.