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    The Railway

    Edouard Manet

    With her back to us, a young girl stands looking through a fence. Facing us directly, a woman sits with a small dog in her lap and a book in her hand. Billowing steam from an unseen train obscures the center background, but the edge of a bridge juts out at right, identifying the setting as Gare Saint-Lazare—Paris’ busiest train station and emblem of the city’s unsettling 19th-century makeover.

    Beyond depicting the modern city, The Railway disturbingly suggests how people experienced it. Pinned against a long black iron fence, these fashionably dressed female figures are physically cut off from the railroad beyond and also seem estranged from each other: facing in opposite directions, they are absorbed in their individual activities. Manet offers us no clues to their relationship, even as we viewers seem to interrupt the woman reading. She looks up at us directly with an expression that is neutral and guarded—the characteristic regard of one stranger encountering another in the modern metropolis.

    Most critics fumed at what they called Manet’s trivial and inscrutable subject matter (as well as his strident colors, loose brush work, and trademark flatly painted forms). Few recognized that with its discomfiting mix of immediacy, psychological detachment, and indefinite narrative, The Railway represented the way Paris’ urban renewal program, of which railroads were a centerpiece, had destabilized social relations in the city. 

    About the Artist

    Édouard Manet, 1867

    Henri Fantin-Latour, Édouard Manet, 1867. Art Institute of Chicago.

    Born in Paris to a wealthy family, Édouard Manet showed promise in drawing and caricature from an early age. After twice being denied admission to France’s prestigious Naval College, he enrolled in 1850 at the studio of academic artist Thomas Couture. While copying paintings at the Louvre, Manet became attracted to the bold brushwork of Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. He soon adopted a free manner of painting that opposed the polished surfaces revered by academic artists. Rather than gradually building up a composition with layers of blended pigments and translucent glazes, Manet selected and applied patches of color side by side, from the start, for their final effect.

    Against a hilly landscape and on a patch of dirt, five people wearing tattered clothing gather around a bearded man who holds a violin in his lap in this horizontal painting. Most of them have pale skin. Starting from the left is a barefoot young woman holding a blond baby to her chest. She faces our right, and her chestnut-brown hair hides her profile. She wears a black shirt over a calf-length skirt streaked with slate and aquamarine blue. To the right two young boys face us. The boy on the left of that pair wears a loose white shirt tucked into tan-colored pants and an upturned wide-brimmed hat. The boy next to him has short brown hair and is dressed in a black and brown vest and pants over a bone-white shirt. His right arm, to our left, is slung across the shoulders of the blond boy and he looks off to our right with dark, unfocused eyes. The man who holds the violin is to our right of center. He sits on a stone with his body facing our left, but he turns to look at us with dark eyes under heavy brows. He has tan skin, dark gray, curly hair, and a trimmed silvery gray beard. A wrinkle under one eye suggests he may smile slightly at us. He wears a loose brown cloak with a ragged bottom hem, teal-blue stockings, and black shoes. He holds a violin on his lap like a guitar. One hand fingers a chord on the neck of the violin, which comes toward us, and the other hand holds the bow and plucks a string. A sand-colored bag with a strap lies at his feet. Two men stand to our right of the musician. One wears a tall black top hat, a brown cloak, gray pants, and black shoes. His face is loosely and indistinctly painted but he has a beard. Finally, the sixth person is a man who stands along the right side of the painting and is cut off by that edge. He wears a turban, a black polka-dotted scarf, and a long black cloak or coat. One hand clutches the scarf and the other rests on a wooden cane by his side. His chin and long, light-colored beard tuck back against the scarf, and he looks off to our left with dark eyes. There are loosely painted olive and forest-green leaves in the upper left corner. The landscape beyond is painted with indistinct areas of muted green, blue, and brown. Bits of azure-blue sky peek through puffy white and gray clouds overhead. The artist signed and dated the lower right, “ed. Manet 1862.”

    Edouard Manet, The Old Musician, 1862, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.162

    Manet set out on his own artistic career in 1856. Soon after, his focus on modern subject matter—street scenes, bar life, and backhanded versions of famous art icons—coupled with his unconventional paint handling, regularly provoked critics’ wrath. Olympia, a painting of a naked courtesan who frankly engages the viewer in parody of the classic Venus, triggered an unparalleled scandal when it was exhibited at the 1865 Salon. The uproar made Manet the de facto leader of the avant-garde. 

    Manet’s bold style, contemporary subject matter, and determination to challenge entrenched academic models influenced younger artists who would come to be known as the impressionists. Manet, too, learned from them, lightening his palette and using even freer brushwork. But he did not share the impressionists’ spontaneity; the striking immediacy of Manet’s greatest works resulted from a deliberate process involving drawing, models, and painting in a studio. Still determined to make his mark in the official Salon, he declined the more radical option of exhibiting with the impressionists.

    Manet continued producing enigmatic and inventive paintings about urban life until his death in 1883. While he had gained a reputation as an influential innovator, only posthumously would he be recognized as a father of modern art.



    Related Works in the Collection

    Edouard Manet, The Railway Restaurant, c. 1879

    Edouard Manet, The Railway Restaurant, c. 1879, pen and brown ink on wove paper laid down, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 2006.128.25

    Edouard Manet, Masked Ball at the Opera, 1873

    Edouard Manet, Masked Ball at the Opera, 1873, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Horace Havemeyer in memory of her mother-in-law, Louisine W. Havemeyer, 1982.75.1

    Jean Béraud, Paris, rue du Havre, c. 1882

    Jean Béraud, Paris, rue du Havre, c. 1882, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.2

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