"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou,” wrote Omar Khayyam in the 12th century. Picnics are a long human tradition. Ever since we left life in the caves, we’ve returned to nature to savor food, beverages and friends in a quiet pretty places, preferably with good views and privacy.
Picnics provide artists with a contrivance to combine landscapes with portraits. Claude Monet rendered such an instance beautifully in “Luncheon on the Grass” (1865). It’s a beautifully composed exquisitely painted masterpiece, with one woman hiding her face.
One of the unusual aspects of this masterpiece is that everyone keeps their clothes on! Coats buttoned up & dresses head to toe.
The history of Western painting is filled with picnics painted with naked people, especially women. Picnics provide opportunities to paint bodies posed alongside lovely vistas.
Titian, the masterful sixteenth century painter, painted “Pastoral Concert” (1509)
Alongside a couple of fully clothed men are two nude voluptuous women.
Paintings were traditionally painted by men for men. Art provided a great excuse to post fabulous nude women, albeit the two elaborated garbed men seem much more interested in their music.Titian was fully aware of where the viewer’s eye would go. He shadowed the men’s faces so our eyes would linger on the pale naked bodies.
Edouard Manet quite frankly used Titian as his inspiration when he painted
“Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” in 1863.
One woman is depicted naked and the other is partially disrobed.
The men don’t even look at her, although one looks the viewer in the eye with an almost defiant attitude, a “don’t you pass judgment” attitude. Moreover, the lovely woman stares back with candor, a “so what?” gaze that guarantees the viewer will not veer away, embodies an enlightened 19th century sensibility.
One of my favorite painters, Henri Matisse, couldn’t resist his own more subtle riff on the theme In “Luxe, Calme et Volupte” (1904). (At least he admits to depicting voluptuousness.) The colors and light steal the eye, render the nudity secondary and lend joy to the scene.
This picnic, with all its nude ladies, provided a natural excuse to paint a multitude of nudes in unlikely positions, as the party got pretty wild, a tour de force in body composition.
Nicolas Poussin clearly leapt at the opportunity in
“The Triumph of Pan” (1636)
There is such a riot of bodies that one scarcely notes the deer hoisted on a guy’s shoulder.
Titian painted a less frenetic orgy version in 1523, “The Bacchanal of the Andrians” where wine flows freely.
I particularly like the lady posed in the foreground. And while Titian was in the process he clearly couldn’t resist painting an adorable child.
After all these lovely riotous picnic scenes, this sedate 1860 picnic by the American Thomas Cole seems very subdued. An American artist of the Hudson River School, Cole’s focus is so clearly impacted by Calvinism that this might be a church picnic in a lovely sweet meadow.