The Romantic poet William Wordsworth, a member of the middle class, was perhaps the first lyricist of the picnic. At the end of the 18th century, he and his school friends took to dining outdoors, as he writes in the autobiographical poem The Prelude:
Hence rustic dinners on the cool green ground,
Or in the woods, or by a riverside
Or fountain—festive banquets that provoked
The languid action of a natural scene
By pleasure of corporeal appetite.
Jane Austen, too, would set a transformative scene in her novel Emma during a picnic, another early incidence of what would become a longstanding trend in art: the country outing as a figurative journey to revelation. Treated sentimentally as well as allegorically, the picnic was a frequent subject in painting, too, especially during the 19th century. French painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and James Tissot all took on the subject. Manet’s 1863 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe is probably the best-known picnic painting of all—not in small part thanks to the fact that it suggests picnics lure women to disrobe.
The picnic had found its moment. Culturally and aesthetically, it represented the passage from one world to another. Baskets and blankets crossed bridges both literal and figurative, from dense manufacturing centers to bucolic pastures overlooking river or lake. In so doing, oppressive social expectations gave way to nature’s inhibition—and humans’ half-wild nature.
On the basis of its subsequent depiction in art and movies, one can be forgiven for assuming the picnic’s primary aim is the shedding of garments rather than the ingestion of deviled eggs. One of cinema’s favorite double entendres occurs during a picnic in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Grace Kelly and Cary Grant are preparing to dine from a hamper in the sexy Sunbeam Alpine roadster they have driven along the scenic Grand Corniche road when she deadpans, “You want a leg or a breast?”
It’s a common narrative pivot, with the picnic as a fulcrum: the spontaneous tryst in the shrubbery during an innocent excursion to the countryside. In Guy de Maupassant’s 1881 short story “Une Partie de Campagne,” a character mimics a satyr as he chases another whose clothes mysteriously loosen the farther she gets from Paris. Then there is William Inge’s Pulitzer-winning 1953 play Picnic, in which a small-town Labor Day gathering incites carnal events that change three women’s lives. And in Peter Weir’s 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, set in 1900, a simple lunch in the Outback is enough to lure girls on the cusp of womanhood into the wilderness of their own voracious desires, trailing pieces of attire as they go. No wonder that, by 1912, The New York Times reported that the “selection of a chaperon” was one of the main problems in arranging a picnic.
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In America at the turn of the 19th century, the picnic presented new opportunities for commerce. Urbanization increased, and with it the desire to escape the city. Enterprising individuals bought especially scenic parcels of land—water frontage practically mandatory—and set up for-profit picnic groves. Picnic wagons, and later trolleys, made runs from the center of town.