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Manet, The Railway

Édouard Manet, The Railway,1872-73, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Man: We're at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. We're looking at Edouard Manet's The Railway, which is one of their great canvases. Woman: And one of my personal favorites. Man: It's a very difficult painting to read in certain ways. Woman: Well that's the idea I think. Man: I think you're absolutely right. Woman: There were all these paintings that were easy to read at the academy. Man: It's still pretty luscious to look at but it's breaking a hell of a lot of conventions. Woman: It is. We can't read it. Man: Presumably the main subject is facing away from us. Woman: We also don't understand what their relationship is. Man: And spacial construction is very ambiguous. But let's try to set this up a little bit. We're in Paris and we're just standing outside one of the main train stations in Paris and we're at an iron gate looking down actually at the train yard. Woman: The train yard, right. And we're on a very modern bridge in the middle of Paris that has recently been rebuilt. Man: We have this young woman and this child that have stopped to look and rest for a moment. The young woman looks up and out at us. There is a puppy in her lap. She is interrupted with her finger in a book and is folded up in her lap. Woman: She directly engages us. She has looked up and we've interrupted her and we're so implicated. What are we in the middle of saying to her? Man: That's right and she's looking up, almost assessing us. Woman: We don't know what our relationship is with her. Man: She has a reason to be there. The child has stopped to look. She has sat down to rest perhaps. It is about this interaction, which the city had made possible. The Grand Boulevards had opened up. The city became a place that you moved through as opposed to a series of sort of separate areas. Woman: And small neighborhoods. Man: That's right, and so there are interactions between people between classes. Woman: Between strangers. Man: Between strangers that was intensely modern. Manet is capturing that beautifully here. But also with all of the ambiguity of the industrial culture that had made this possible with the railway. Look at the ambiguity that the railway constructs with its steam. With that cloud, that is in some ways really the subject of the painting. And really stark contrast between the luminosity of that cloud of steam and the dark bars of the iron fence. Woman: What I find amazing is the looseness with which everything is painted and how that also is a symbol of the modern world. Manet is rejecting all the finish. Man: But also the momentary because to clarify we need something that's fixed and stable, that's right. Woman: So for example the grapes on the ledge over to the right corner spill over but you don't have a sense of that as a real ledge that exists in space that is foreshortened and comes out towards us and all that brown paint behind those black bars on the right side almost comes forward in front of the black bars, so that space collapses all of those rules about perspective and atmospheric perspective and constructing space and finish. This is a painting that's meant in just about every way to signify the modern and the contemporary. Man: And it really does. Think about what it means to have the primary central figure turned away from us completely so we cannot see anything but the very edge of her face and her cheek. Woman: And look at how unfinished. Her arm is really lax modeling to define it. Nothing is framed. Nothing is in the center. It's the way that we experience the city. It's the way that our eye moves. Man: Where does he put his focus? For a moment it's on the puppy. For a moment it's on the young woman's face, but it's especially on her hat and the fashion of her hat. Woman: Yes, it's very much about fashion and about reading people in the city based on what they're wearing, reading their class. Man: You know we still do this. It's an intensely modern painting. (piano music)