The Railway by Edouard Manet

24 Jan

1873. The Railway by Edouard Manet Edouard Manet, The Railway, 1873

This painting perfectly embodies Charles Baudelaire’s idea of ‘modernity’. (his quote: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.‘) Baudelaire argued that art should capture the modern life, both its glamour and bleakness, with a constant awareness of its transience. Baudelaire’s ideas came to life through the brushstrokes of Impressionists. Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted parties and dance scenes, Claude Monet painted bridges, trains and seasides, Pissaro painted boulevards, Gustave Caillebotte the streets of Paris, but it was the radical young artist called Edouard Manet who beautifully captured Baudelaire’s ideas. In return, Baudelaire praised Manet in times when art critics were still enraged by his paintings Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass.

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 2

The first thing you’ll notice about this painting is the straightforward gaze on the face of this rosy-cheeked and red haired woman, modeled by Manet’s favourite model, Victorine Meurent. She appeared in many of his paintings, most notably the two already mentioned above: Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass. In this painting she posed as a nanny and her piercing gaze is evident as well, though she seems a bit distant, her eyes sad and tired. She is dressed in a navy gown with wide pagoda sleeves; typical fashion of the time. There’s a sleeping puppy in her lap, a closed fan and a book. She seems to have been reading that book, but something distracted her.

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 6

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 5

Next to her stands a little girl in white dress with large blue bow. Model for the little girl was a daughter of Manet’s friend Alphonse Hirsch. Her black hair ribbon matches the one her nanny is wearing around her neck. The little girl turned her back on us. We can’t see her face, thought she appears to be amused by the train passing by, clutching the iron grating like a restless captive bars of its cage. Large brushstrokes of solid black are spread across the canvas, dominating the background.

The setting includes the train station in Paris called Gare Saint-Lazare. It was a spot painted by fellow Impressionists such as Gustave Caillebotte and Claude Monet, but Manet approached the subject quite differently. There is no visible train; only the white cloud of steam indicates its presence.

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 3

Motif of trains is much more than just an Impressionistic fancy. Train station is a busy but vivid place, a place of tears or joy, depending on whether somebody is traveling far away, or returning after a long trip. Trains could take you anywhere out of Paris, from a grey cityscape to the beautiful gardens in the suburbs, which Monet used to visit. Here the setting symbolises bustle, changes, movement and adventures but both the nanny and the little girl are on the other side, on the wrong side of the fence. They’re not in the centre of activities, they’re just passively watching, that is, the nanny is gazing at us, but the little girl is still full of hope, her eyes riveted at Gare Saint-Lazare.

Edouard Manet’s anniversary of birth was yesterday, so I think it’s always nice to remember artists on their birthdays.

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