Manet’s The Railway (1873)

Edouard Manet's The Railway is a colorful and charming scene of a woman with a little girl who looks down with interest onto the newly created railway lines of nineteenth century Paris. The smoke of a passing train obscures her view. That's how the ordinary viewer has always seen this image and art historians too, especially those interested in sociology, Paris and urban development. No doubt historians of the railway scrutinize it too. But it's all a mirage as the smoke suggests. The scene is not what it seems. Here's why. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, The Railway (1873) Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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A few years ago Carol Armstrong, a Manet specialist, revealed that Manet had been inspired by an insignificant watercolor drawn by his friend, Berthe Morisot (left).1 Why, though, did Manet change the viewpoint?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Morisot, Woman and Child on a Balcony (1872)

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To begin with, Morisot's watercolor was not Manet's only source. It has strangely never been noticed that Manet also used a painting by Titian, believed to be of Titian's daughter Lavinia, to create the girl's figure. The oversight is odd because Manet is known to have used Titian's daughter as the source for another picture. In this translation the heads of the girls differ but the contours of their heads, their high waistbands and skirts describe similar silhouettes. Her arm, however, was lowered...

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Manet's The Railway
R: Titian, Girl with a Fruitdish (c.1545)

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...... to resemble a painter’s, like that of  Eva Gonzales in Manet's well-known portrait.

Manet’s actual model for the girl was the daughter of another painter, Alphonse Hirsch. Thus, doubly descended from the daughters of painters, the girl must represent an ‘artist’.

This "young female artist" faces her canvas, the ‘painted’ railings, from the same viewpoint as the girl in Morisot's watercolor. She thus represents Morisot (and Manet), just as another woman did in Manet's painting Before the Mirror.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Manet's The Railway
R: Manet, Portrait of Eva Gonzalez, detail (1870)

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What is she painting? The straight lines of the railing strongly resemble a canvas being "squared up", the traditional method of transferring sketches. In the distance on the left is the actual door to Manet's new studio so, though she depicts the outside, we are inside. For the most part, however, the "artist" stares at smoke, an age-old symbol for creative imagination. Meanwhile, to her left, a woman is waiting, Manet's celebrated model. She seems to lack emotional connection to the girl which thus suggests that they are not on the same level of reality. She is the model, perhaps, or even the "painting". Whichever she is, she continues the theme of opposites, staring outwards as the girl stares inwards

See conclusion below.

Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, The Railway (1873)

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Most compellingly, the grapes often overlooked in the lower right corner are out-of-place outdoors and seemingly irrelevant too. Yet they achieve relevance only once the fusion of a studio and canvas is recognized. The grapes are the only explicit signal that the scene is indoors.

The Railway, like other major paintings by Manet revealed on this site, depicts the artist's alter ego constructing the very scene we are looking at, fusing the activity in the studio with that of the scene itself. It is, of course, not reality but an imagined scene in the artist's mind of the painting's own conception. And by making the girl a representation of both Morisot and Manet, he communicates the androgynous nature of the creative mind. For some more recent comments on the painting see 1+1=1: The Divided Self in Manet's Railway.

Among many similar examples by Manet are Mlle V in the Costume of an Espada, Le Dejeuner sur l'HerbeOlympia and A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.

Notes:

1. Armstrong, Manet Manette (Yale University Press) 2006, pp. 203-6

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 13 Jan 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.