Manet's "The Railway" on Loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Édouard Manet’s close friend Charles Baudelaire, poet and art critic, consistently dwelled in his writing on the duality in life, and perhaps no painting by Manet reflects more this dichotomy of life in 1870s Paris than his enigmatic work The Railway of 1873, the next in the exciting series of exchanges between the Norton Simon Museum and the National Gallery of Art. This remarkable masterpiece brings us face to face with a formidable young woman, who regards us without a warm welcome, but rather a cautious acceptance. Her finger marks her place in the book before our intrusion, and the fact that she keeps it there is a sign that she encourages us to take our leave momentarily. Our interpretation of her inscrutability quickly gives way to one of the first of many evident contradictions in the image: a small brown and white puppy that dozes comfortably in the warmth of her lap. The woman’s other companion, a young girl, chooses to ignore our entrance as she gazes, transfixed, at the ferocious urban comings and goings that serve to set this small residential terrace and its current inhabitants in one dreamy world across from another just yards away, on the rue de Saint-Pétersbourg.

Visitors to Manet’s studio at 4 rue de Saint-Pétersbourg often remarked that his floors and windows shook with every train pulling in or out of the nearby Gare Saint-Lazare. By the time that Manet moved to this studio, Paris had experienced a two-decade, stunning rejuvenation at the hand of Baron Haussmann, who under Napoléon III oversaw this urban renewal and remodeling of Paris. Manet—a Parisian through and through, always dressed impeccably and with great flair—embraced this modernization and all its amenities. However, he chose to reveal his forever-changed city in depictions of its daily life, its denizens of all classes and neighborhoods, and in all its beauty and depravity.

He did not have to travel too far afield to find inspiration for The Railway, one of the first paintings he completed after moving to the studio. He merely crossed the elevated Place de l’Europe and walked to the home of his friend Alphonse Hirsch, whose own studio was in a building directly across from Manet’s on the rue de Rome. It is there that one of his favorite models, Victorine Meurent, posed for Manet’s first sketches for this painting in a fashionable deep blue dress and black hat, while the daughter of Hirsch, who portrays the younger girl, surveyed intently something now lost in the steam of a train. An incongruous bunch of grapes—a richly painted still life on its own—sits momentarily abandoned on the ledge. Did Manet intend for us to read this gorgeously painted scene as one of a mother and child, of an older sister with her sibling or of a governess with her young charge? Are we to see disparity in the rich, blue bow that encircles the young girl’s waist and the hard, concrete reality of the city beyond? Perhaps this is Manet’s statement on life, or the loss of youth, having reached the age of 40 when he began work on this picture. Or just maybe it is the arched wooden door of Manet’s new studio that captures the attention of the Hirsch fillette.

The Railway presents questions and oracles that continue to confound us almost a century and a half after its execution. We invite you to come and puzzle over this tour de force while it is on loan to us over the holidays and installed amid the Museum’s own extraordinary collection of works by Manet and his contemporaries in the 19th-century galleries.


Audio: Manet's "The Railway" on Loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington