1+1=1: The Divided Self in Manet’s Railway

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

What is the girl up to? Who are they? What's happening? Why do they wear the same color clothes? Why is the girl's hair so odd?

In my explanation two years ago of Edouard Manet’s The Railway (1873) I noted that the extended arm of the girl, an alter ego, is “painting” the background and that what we see is a fusion of a scene in Manet's studio with the motif outside. The doors to his own studio space are visible in the distance on the other side of the tracks. The little girl, representing an innocent and pure version of Morisot, Manet and Titian, begins to “square up” her canvas (using “the railings”) to transfer a drawing while looking into smoke, a symbol of poetic imagination. Jane Mayo Roos recently noted the relative flatness of the girl's neck, shoulders, and left arm which as always in Manet's art is a sign that she is “painted”.1 Paintings are flat. As an "artist", the little girl is both painting and painted.

Manet’s well-known model Victorine Meurend is normally said to be the girl's nurse. The older woman is more likely the model she resembles, the artist’s other half, and is therefore linked to the little painter. Roos is therefore right to question whether they are even aware of one another. I had noted that the woman looks outwards while the girl looks inwards. Roos has now added in a just-published essay that just as the two females are visually differentiated, they are visually linked as well. They both wear blue and white and pendant earrings, even a black ribbon. Strange too, Roos notes, is the girl's oddly upswept hair. That hair is indeed odd but, curving downwards it strongly suggests the hairs of a paintbrush at work, pressing against the surface of the canvas. As for the links, just as Manet visually connected the two women (in reality, one) in Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863), he did the same here. Their clothes and accessories are very different in some respects but very similar in others.

Left: Detail of Manet's The Railway
Right: Diagram of detail at left showing the shape of the initial M.

Roos further notes that the girl’s “prominently zigzag hairline, interrupted by rather large patches of skin” below the ribbon is very curious. She is right; Manet made it curious to draw our attention to it. Yet, unaware of how every painter paints himself and of Manet’s constant use of the letter M, she cannot imagine that Manet formed the girl’s hair into the letter M to identify her as himself. In fact, the letter M appears more clearly in her hair above the ribbon (see diagram) and is then loosely repeated as though falling apart beneath it. Perhaps it shows how the M (or self) in Manet's mind (clearly detailed in the shading of the hair above the ribbon) becomes a specific shape disguised as part of reality in the tufts of hair below it.

The brush-shaped hair and letter-shaped tufts are good examples of how visual inconsistencies are intended to catch the attention of viewers but, without understanding the concept every painter paints himself, their meaning - and even their form - remain hidden.  

1. All references here are to Jane Mayo Roos, "Manet and the Impressionist Moment" in Perspectives on Manet, ed. Thérèse Dolan (Farnham, UK: Ashgate) 2012, pp. 87-8

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