Mickalene Thomas borrows the compositional format of Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863). Instead of two fully dressed men and the nude woman who appear in Manet’s painting, Thomas presents us with three self-assured Black women who assertively consider us. This painting references important pieces of modern art to reconsider how perspective influences history.
This Manet painting was a watershed moment for modern art. Manet’s male figures are modern Parisians, and the nude woman looking at the viewer is a recognizable model rather than a mythological figure or religious character. Without allegory as a subject, this painting was violating tradition. By breaking taboos, Manet started a conversation about painting itself, rather than subject matter.
"I was looking at Western figures like Manet and Courbet, to find a connection with the body in relationship to history. Because I was not seeing the Black body written about art historically in relation to the white body and the discourse—it wasn’t there in art history. And so I questioned that. I was really concerned about that particular space and how it was void. I wanted to find a way of claiming the space, of aligning my voice and art history and entering this discourse."
– Mickalene Thomas
This painting was originally commissioned for the Museum of Modern Art’s window display facing 53rd Street in Manhattan. It was inspired by the museum’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, where a number of sculptures of female nudes are on display. In the painting, you can make out the shapes of one of the panels of Henri Matisse’s The Back, a series of bronze reliefs in MoMA’s collection located along the wall of the garden.
Interior spaces are layered with personal histories in Mickalene Thomas’s work. Her use of textiles, upholstery coverings, rhinestones, and wood paneling evokes the 1970s, the decade she was born. It also questions how decorative choices and taste are culturally inherited according to class. Thomas brings the history of fashion, style, and African art face-to-face with the history of modern art.
Images: Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 120 x 288 x 2 in., The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, © Mickalene Thomas. Tamika sur une chaise longue avec Monet, 2012, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 108 x 144 x 2 in., Sydney & Walda Besthoff, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, © Mickalene Thomas. Resist, 2017, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestones, acrylic, gold leaf, and oil stick on canvas mounted on wood panel, 84 x 108 x 2 in., © Mickalene Thomas.