During Édouard Manet’s life he was great friends with the writer Charles Beaudelaire, the French poet, philosopher and art critic, and from around 1855 they became constant companions with the two of them frequently going off on sketching trips. It was an important friendship for Manet, as during the times his work was being harshly criticised, Beaudelaire was very supportive of him. Lois Hyslop the American author and Beaudelaire specialist wrote about this supportive role in her 1980 book Beaudelaire, Man of His Time, and she quoted his comments with regards Manet:
“…Manet has great talent, a talent which will stand the test of time. But he has a weak character. He seems to me crushed and stunned by shock…”
Beaudelaire believed in modernité in art and in his book, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, he stressed the importance of it saying that it was very important that art must be held accountable to capture the modern experience. He wrote:
“…By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable…”
His advice to Manet was that his art should depict a contemporary realism and that Manet should become le peintre de la vie moderne .
Today I am returning to the French artist Édouard Manet and looking at another of his paintings. It is a painting of modern life and modern Paris and would no doubt have pleased his friend, Beaudelaire. The painting is simply entitled The Railway which he started in 1872 and completed the following year. It now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This was the only painting by Manet that was accepted by the Salon jury for their 1874 exhibition. In some ways it is an unusual painting and we struggle to understand what it is all about and Manet never revealed his thoughts behind the work. So let us take a look at the image and see if we can understand Manet’s thought process as he put brush to canvas.
To start on this journey of exploration I suppose we need to say what we see. Let us first let us take in the setting of the scene. It is an urban landscape of Paris in the late 19th century. Why did Manet choose this scene and what was its significance? This was the area around the newly built Gare Saint Nazare which was completed in 1837 and this area, along with the Pont de l’Europe, which straddled the railway tracks was an area of unparalleled importance for representing the changing face of modern life in Paris brought about by the redevelopment scheme of Baron Haussmann. It was an area which was depicted many times by the Impressionist artists like Monet, Caillebotte and Jean Beruad. The view we see is from the garden of the rue de Rome apartment house of Manet’s artist friend Alphonse Hirsch. The painting is almost dominated by the black metal railings which boldly run the full width of the painting, creating a foreground and a background to the work and at the same time and in some ways acts to force the two females out towards us. The black railings form a hard, lattice-work and it is in contrast to the pure white steam behind it. There is an abundance of contrast in this painting with its sharp edges and soft dissolves. The small girl, with her back to us, almost seems as if she is using the railings as stage curtains which she draws open to get a better view of the rail tracks and the feverish movement of the trains below. In contrast, the older female just leans back against them and shows little interest in what is happening behind her. She has seen it all before. To the right, on the other side of the railings, low down we can see a signal box, above which we can just make out a white pillar which is part of the Pont de l’Europe, which was inaugurated in 1868. The Saint-Lazare station, which is out of picture, is further to the right.
Across from the railway tracks and in the background on the upper left of the painting, just behind the woman’s head, we see the buildings on the rue de Saint-Pétersbourg and the probable reason for this inclusion is we are actually looking at the door and window of 4 rue de Saint-Pétersbourg , which was formerly a fencing hall, but from 1872 to 1878, it was Manet’s studio. Most of the central background behind the railings has been masked by a cloud of steam and smoke which has wafted upwards from a passing locomotive and now hangs in the air.
On our side of the railings and close up to us we have the life sized figures of a young women and a young girl. We are connected to them by their nearness, but is there a connection between the two of them? Are they mother and daughter, or sisters, or governess and charge? I think at this early stage in our investigation we have hit a brick wall as there is nothing to tell us about this relationship. However there is certain disconnect between the two. They face in different directions, almost a Janus-like scenario.
The woman wears a long dark blue dress with large round white buttons and full lace cuffs. Cradled in her lap we see a small dog, which is often termed due to its size, a lap dog. She is holding an opened book which she has been reading and tucked partly under her right arm is a closed fan. Her long hair which is auburn in colour hangs loosely down and rests on her shoulders. The lack of styling to her hair gives me to believe that she may be just out of her teenage years and yet, the covering of her arms, unlike the young girl next to her, would indicate a sense of decorum attributable to adulthood. On top of her head she wears a tall bonnet crested with a floral design. For jewellery she has gold-like earrings and a bracelet and wears a thin black ribbon around her neck. She stares thoughtfully out at us. It is an ambiguous unwavering stare and in some ways a similar look to the one the lady gave us in Manet’s painting Olympia. Is she trying to engage with us?
The model Manet used for this depiction is once again Victorine Louise Meurent, a painter and famous artist’s model. We have seen her before in Manet’s controversial masterpieces, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) which I featured in My Daily Art Display of August 2nd and Olympia (My Daily Art Display Oct 12th). This was to be her last sitting for Manet for it was around this time that she started taking painting lessons. She wanted to concentrate on an academic style of painting which was anathema to Manet and their relationship fell apart.
Let us now look at the young girl. The model used for this young girl was the daughter of Albert Hirsch, Manet’s friend. She has her back to us and we see her peering between the railings at the activity below – the passing of a steam train. It is somewhat strange that her right arm and shoulder are missing which is in direct contrast to her left arm which is stretched outwards as her hand grips the black metal railing. Her attire reinforces her young age as we see she is not condemned by late 19th century convention to have long sleeves to her dress. Her bluish/silver dress with the large bow is depicted in an unusual fashion. It balloons outwards which either means a rush of upward air has caused it to billow or she has retained what is termed “puppy fat”. Her hairstyle belies her age as it is swept up in an adult fashion and tied by a similar black ribbon worn by the woman.
So what did the critics make of Manet’s painting which was his largest en plein air work, up until then, that he ever painted measuring 93cms x 114cms. Alas once again a hostile reception from the critics greeted Manet’s work. One said the painting should be renamed:
Two sufferers from incurable Manet-mania watch the cars go by, through the bars of a madhouse
Those who visited the exhibition were baffled by the work. Critics said that the painting was incoherent and the painting quality was poor. Unfortunately, few failed to recognise that this was a painting which symbolised modernity. His friend Beaudelaire would have been proud of him but alas he died seven years before the painting was exhibited.