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Ladies Who Lunch

Luncheon on the Grass

Sorry to say, summer is fleeting. Summer fashion? It changes so fast it'll make your top hat–covered head spin.

In 1863 Edouard Manet painted a scandalous work titled Luncheon on the Grass which showed voluptuous nudes striking classical poses in the company of men dressed in the fashions of 1860s Paris. In the minds of the public, making the outdoor scene contemporary corrupted the work in a shocking way.

Perhaps in a nod to Manet's Luncheon, several years later Claude Monet began work on a group of figure drawings also named Luncheon on the Grass. Monet, like Manet, sought to use imagery of the Parisian middle class at leisure in the forests of Fontainebleau to push the envelope. While the ambitious goal of presenting this large project at the Salon of 1866 didn't pan out, two large, life-sized panels (the central panel above and the left panel below), as well as a number of sketches and studies, show the scope of what Monet aimed to accomplish.

Standing atop the artificial grass among fashionable visitors from around the country and world, Monet's groundbreaking explorations come into full focus.

Left Luncheon on the Grass

The middle-class crowd sprawled out in the woods is not organized according to some classical calculus. The faces of the figures are not the focus (you can't even see the faces of three of the women!), nor are the food, drink, or trees. What does pop, however, is the fashion that most certainly was the very epitome of style at the very moment depicted. The brightly-colored accents on the dress on the left panel, the brilliant white of the dress at center, the complicated motion of the beige dress, and the cut and fit of the men's suits are, in my mind, Monet's tour de force. The ephemerality of these garments—very much alive in the panels—are sure to fall from favor at the end of the season just as the leaves will fall from the forest trees. What strikes me about this painting is that it's timeless by not showing the timeless, classic by rejecting the classical. It, through fashion, shows how life really is: momentary, colorful, and always in flux.

Monet's beautiful snapshot of modern life is still contemporary today even after 150 cycles of summer fashion have passed. And, just like hot summer fashions of 2013, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity will go off view at the end of September.

Image Credit: Claude Monet. Luncheon on the Grass, 1865–66. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, acquired as a payment in kind, 1987, RF 1987-12.