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Current time:0:00Total duration:3:25

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and we're looking at one of my favorite paintings by Edouard Manet, "In the Conservatory." Now, a conservatory is like a greenhouse. It would be attached to a home, and would allow for plants to survive the winter. BETH HARRIS: And the woman who takes up most of the painting seems like a hothouse flower herself. I mean, look at her dress and hat. STEVEN ZUCKER: She was actually the owner of a boutique, and so fashion was important to her. And it's a wonderful sort of reminder of the way in which Paris had become such a showplace for the bourgeoisie. Being observed and observing were critically important activities, especially for somebody like Manet. BETH HARRIS: She has that air about her, of being above it all. STEVEN ZUCKER: She does seem detached. BETH HARRIS: I read it as her aloofness and his desire for intimacy. The center almost literally is their hands, hers casually draped on the back of this bench, but his holding a cigar, which seems to inch towards her. STEVEN ZUCKER: She looks out past him. And so you're absolutely right. She's the object of his attention, perhaps of his desire, and she seems to be elsewhere completely. That man is her husband, Jules Gamet. BETH HARRIS: Typical of Manet. We have this open brushwork, this loose handling of paint. STEVEN ZUCKER: You're right. This kind of speed with which his hand is moving across the surface of the canvas. I love the way that the bench functions as a barrier between them, except of course, at its top, where the hands almost meet. BETH HARRIS: And so often, Manet does give us a sense of the momentary, the sense of something caught by our eye. And I almost have that sense here, as though we were walking by and caught this moment. STEVEN ZUCKER: Formally, the painting is so interesting. She looks off to the right. And although we don't have a sense that she's looking at something specific, we do see her gaze enter an area that we don't have available to us. The man is looking at her, but we can't quite see his eyes. In Manet's usual way, there is a kind of flattening that takes place here. The figures are very close to the foreground, and the verticals of the back of the bench help to emphasize, through their rhythm, the 2-dimensionality of the surface. The relative lack of differentiation in the greens in the background and the foliage created an even field and a kind of shallow space. BETH HARRIS: And it's this flatness. And it's also the problems in the narrative that I think would have upset 19th century viewers. Most academic paintings would've offered us a narrative that was entirely understandable. And this one just isn't. We can't firmly say what's going on with these figures. We don't know what just outside the frame to the right. STEVEN ZUCKER: So there's this kind of ambiguity, not only in the style of painting, but there's a kind of ambiguity in the relationship, as well. All of which was antithetical to the strong narratives of the Academy. This illegibility is such a beautiful expression of the ambiguity of modern life. And Manet was one of the first artists to recognize this and make this central to his art. [MUSIC PLAYING]