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Mickalene Thomas’s masterpiece

January 21st, 2019

Mickalene Thomas, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 304.8 x 731.5 cm. The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Have you seen our exhibition Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires? Trust us, you don’t want to miss it. This incredible exhibition, which takes up all of Level 5 in the Vivian & David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art, is filled with vibrant, multi-dimensional collage paintings, compelling video installations, photography and several interactive living room tableaux.

The work of Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas explores race and the representation of Black women’s bodies in art and popular culture through her reinterpretation of iconic images in Western art history, by artists like Gustave Courbet, Pablo Picasso and Édouard Manet. Drawing inspiration from their works, Mickalene inserts into her art empowering images of Black women whom she considers mentors and muses. Her subjects create a commentary on the reality of Black women today – disrupting Western notions of beauty, identity and art.

Mickalene Thomas, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires (detail), 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 304.8 x 731.5 cm. The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

We see that in Mickalene’s monumental work Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires. The painting began as a photograph commissioned by MoMA, staged in the museum’s sculpture garden. The work is a centrepiece in the exhibition, measuring seven metres in length and structured using three panels of wood. Mickalene created this massive painted version to take up space – both literally and figuratively – with three larger-than-life, regal Black women depicted at the centre.

Edouard Manet, Lunch on the Grass, 1863. Oil on canvas, 208 x 264.5 cm. Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Etienne Moreau Nélaton donation, 1906.

This piece is a re-creation of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which was deemed controversial when it was first exhibited in 1863. In the painting, Manet depicts two nude white women with two dandy-like men on either side. In contrast, in Mickalene’s version – an homage to and critique of Manet’s work – the people are recast as a trio of fully-clothed, fashionable (the dresses were designed by Mickalene herself), confident Black women. With glamourous make-up and fabulous dazzling Afros, their gaze fixes on the viewer, meeting them face-to-face.

Mickalene Thomas, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires (detail), 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 304.8 x 731.5 cm. The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Surrounding the women is a lively collage of saturated colours, faux-wood paneling, densely patterned fabrics, rhinestones and fragmented shapes – signatures in Mickalene’s work. The use of collage in this piece provides a contrast against the flat matte colouring of the women’s skin tones.

Mickalene Thomas, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires (detail), 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 304.8 x 731.5 cm. The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This image, as do many of Mickalene’s works, invites viewers to spend time contemplating and exploring notions of beauty and identity.

Check out Mickalene Thomas as she describes Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires in her own words.

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