Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Édouard Manet, The Railway

Zuzanna Stańska 23 April 2022 min Read

In 1873 when this painting was created by the Realist master Édouard Manet, the Gare Saint–Lazare was the largest and busiest train station in Paris. But here it is rather invisible. The main subject of the piece is the woman with a child. The woman is Victorine Meurent, also a painter and Manet’s favorite model in the 1860s who appeared also in his Olympia and the Luncheon on the Grass, and the child is the daughter of a fellow painter and neighbor Alphonse Hirsch, who allowed Manet to use his garden to create The Railway.

Edouard Manet The Railway Édouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Édouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

The pensive subject is wearing a dark hat and navy blue dress with white details and is looking towards the viewer, while a sleeping puppy, a fan and an open book rest in her lap. A little girl next to her is wearing a contrast white dress with large blue bow, standing her back to the viewer, watching through the railings as a train passes beneath them. Maybe she is a 19th century young trainspotter? The black band in the girl’s hair echoes the black band around the neck of the woman. Resting on a parapet to the right of the painting is a bunch of grapes, perhaps indicating that the painting was made in the autumn. The dog may be a reference to Titian’s Venus of Urbino; Manet had earlier echoed Titian’s composition in his Olympia.

Instead of choosing the traditional natural view as background for an outdoor scene, Manet opted for the iron grating. The only evidence of the train and the train station itself is a white cloud of steam. In the background, we can see modern apartment buildings including the house on the Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg, near the Place de l’Europe, where Manet had rented a studio since July 1872 – and also a signal box and the Pont de l’Europe famously depicted by Gustave Caillebotte.

Edouard Manet The Railway Édouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., detail
Édouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Detail.

Manet submitted four works to the Paris Salon of 1874. Of the four, only two were accepted, The Railway and a watercolor. Reviewers were critical of the unfinished appearance of The Railway and that the rail station itself was not well-defined in the picture. Although Manet never chose to associate himself officially with the Impressionist group, this painting’s scene of modern life, as well as its loose, abstract effects, show the influence of the younger artists on his work.

Edouard Manet The RailwayÉdouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., detail
Édouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Detail.

Shortly after it was completed, the painting was sold to baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure. It was then sold in 1881 for 5,400 francs to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who gave it several names: Enfant regardant le chemin de fer, Le pont de l’Europe, A la Gare St. Lazare, and later just Gare St. Lazare. It was sold again on 31 December 1898 for 100,000 francs to American Henry Osborne Havemeyer. His wife Louisine Havemeyer left 2,000 artworks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on her death in 1929, but she divided a small collection, including The Railway, among her three children. The painting was donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1956 on the death of her son Horace Havemeyer.

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