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Manet, The Balcony

Édouard Manet, The Balcony, 1868-69, oil on canvas, 66-1/2 x 44-1/4 inches (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker

The three principal figures depicted were each friends of the artist. From left to right they are: the painters Berthe Morisot and Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet, and Fanny Claus, a violinist. Some have suggested that the fourth figure, barely visible in the shadows, is the young Leon Leenhoff, the son of Manet's wife.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: We're looking at Manet's The Balcony. It's really an extraordinary painting. I mean, clearly he's looking at Goya. We have a number of recognizable figures, with the exception of the servant in the background, who is barely visible. We have a painter who is standing, Antoine Guillemet A woman on the right who is a violinist, an important friend and painter, Berthe Morisot. Beth: It feels to me very much like a painting about greens and blacks. The greens of the shutters. The green of the balustrade. The whites of their dresses, I mean the colors are just lovely. Steven: So almost like a Whistler, in that it's a kind of a study of color. Beth: But also a feeling very much of that kind of thing that we expect of Manet, of an image of modern, urban life and although we don't see a city here, it's implied and that we're among the fashionable class of the city. The man looks very much like the type of a flaneur and the women are clearly upper class and there's a feeling of leisure, of being urban and sophisticated and looking out over the balconies of Paris onto the streets below, enjoying the crowd and the flow of people and also that sense of being disconnected themselves. So while they're observing the flow of modern life, they don't interact with each other. They're in their own minds, in a way. Steven: And they don't interact with the life beyond the balustrade, either, and so that sense of dislocation is I think really important to this painting. It's all about different kinds of separation, isn't it? But I'm struck by the ways in which the male artist is standing and gazing out upward, slightly. And Morisot's are the only eyes ... and remember, you know, she's so much about that side and vision itself. Beth: As an artist, as a painter. Steven: Yeah, but her eyes are the only ones that are distinct and focused and she seems to be gazing in a way that is full of a kind of awareness. Beth: It's true. There's a kind of consciousness that he's given her that he hasn't given the other two figures exactly or as much consciousness. Steven: So I'm also interested in space here. Because in the traditional second empire Hausmann architecture, you have a balcony but it tends to be very narrow and shallow balcony and that shallowness is evident here. There's just enough room for a potted hydrangea, which is really beautifully rendered and of course this is all very fashionable as you said, you have the porcelain vase down below and the blues of the hydrangea and of the vase play against the greens in a really subtle and interesting way. This painting really is about, in a sense, the annihilation of modern life. Beth: You know when we say annihilation, it has like negative connotation and there's part of me that wonders maybe this isn't negative, maybe this is just a quality of feature, a felt characteristic of modern life of being located more in individual subjectivity, less than a community, this way that the subjective in the individual comes more and more to the fore in the late 19th century and that personal subjective quality of vision does, too. Steven: And there are formal ways that that is achieved. I mean, not only are the figures looking in each of their own directions, in a sense, preoccupied by modern life but the most striking aspects that they hold, each one is sort of facing a different direction. You've got the green umbrella, diagonal right. You've got that brown fan that Morisot holds, diagonal left and then you've got the tie, which is in a sense it's a ... its visual equivalent, which is sort of moving just vertically and to the left. Beth: Everything kind of moves out and away. Beth: ... from the painting. Yeah. Steven: In its own sort of separate way. Steven: This is a painting about its fashionableness. It's not that he's just rendering just how chic they are, but this is a painting that celebrates the very notion of a bourgeois fashion. (piano music playing)