On the back of an envelope from the Simon Gallery, probably in 1932, Picasso wrote: "When I see Manet's Lunch on the Grass I tell myself there is pain ahead". Written comments by Picasso on painters and their works are extremely rare, and this one even more unusual in that it mentions one painting in particular. It projects the artist into an unknown future, but a future nevertheless outlined by this looming encounter.
Throughout his career, Picasso went back to Cranach, Poussin, Velasquez, Rembrandt, David, Delacroix and Courbet. But his experiment with Manet's painting was, without doubt, the most profound and the most complex he ever undertook.
The Lunch on the Grass is a painting with several overlaid themes:
- the reference to the old masters, Manet having taken his inspiration from Titian's Concert champêtre in the Musée du Louvre, and from The Judgement of Paris, an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael.
- the issue of the nude, "It seems I'll have to paint a nude. Very well then, I'll paint a nude for them", Manet had declared to Antonin Proust.
- the question of the subject, the reason for all the uproar surrounding it. "We cannot regard as chaste a work in which a woman, seated in the woods, surrounded by students in berets and coats, is clothed only in the shadows of the leaves" (Ernest Chesneau, quoted by Françoise Cachin in Manet, RMN, 1983).
- finally, the issue of the outdoor setting: the real open air, according to Emile Zola,
"In this painting, what one must see […] is the entire landscape, full of atmosphere, this corner of nature rendered with a simplicity so accurate…".
Picasso tackles each of these problems in four stages.