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National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


T.J. Clark comments on the significance of steam in Manet’s The Railway :

“Steam is this painting’s great subject, clearly; and how people relate to steam, how they face it or do not face it; how they turn to face us. It does not take much ingenuity to see that steam in the Manet is a metaphor for a general, maybe constitutive, instability – for things in modernity incessantly changing their shape, hurrying forward, dispersing, and growing impalpable. The picture is perfectly conscious of the fact that their doing so is deeply appealing. It is a sight for sore eyes. We all like watching the trains go by. But steam in Le Chemin de fer [French title] is also a figure for that shifting and impalpability getting into the texture of life. Steam is a metaphor for appearance, and appearances here being transitory, and for some reason also thoroughly guarded. Steam is the surface that life as a whole is becoming. The girl and the governess are put in a space that is more like a cage than a terrain vague. From railings to picture plane there are no more than two or three feet.

Steam and appearance, then: that is certainly Manet’s ruling trope. But not simply appearance canceling depth, and ruling out inwardness altogether. Manet and modernism never go that far. The governess is reading and dreaming. For a moment she may be all outwardness and facingness, but she still has two fingers keeping her place in her book. Maybe steam could also be a metaphor for the freedom of the imagination. But then we look again at those implacable railings, dividing and ruling the rectangle, pressing everything up to the picture surface. Surfaces are too easily organized, that is the trouble with modern mobility and anonymity. Always in the new city freedom (evanescence) is the other side of frozenness and constraint.”

T.J. Clark, “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam,” October, vol. 100 (Spring 2002): 158-9. 


Françoise Cachin comments on the relationship of Manet’s The Railway to Impressionism:

“Although the painting may well have been done from life, en plein air [outdoors], the grill literally and figuratively delimits Manet’s relation to the universe of Impressionism. This artist is not absorbed in the landscape (or, rather, cityscape) but subjects it to contemplation by persons of his own milieu.”

Françoise Cachin, “The Railroad” in Manet 1832-1883 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983), 341. 


Theodore Reff notes the artificial composition of The Railway :

“[The figures’] relation to the setting is also more contrived than appears at first. To view the Pont de l’Europe as it appears here, at the right edge, Manet would have had to stand far back in the triangular garden behind Hirsch’s building at 58, rue de Rome, near the corner of the rue de Constantinople…But he shows the figures as if they were at the front of the garden, at the very edge of the railroad yard, and he enhances this illusion of immediacy by eliminating the heavy diagonal trellis and vertical fence of the bridge on the other side of the rue de Constantinople, and indeed the width of the street itself, including instead only the thin black fence around the garden.”

Theodore Reff, Manet and Modern Paris (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1982), 56-7.


Tony Judt comments on the transformative consequences of the timetable (which may be what Manet's woman is holding):

"It is hard today to convey the significance and implications of the timetable, which first appeared in the early 1840s: for the organization of the railways themselves, of course, but also for the daily lives of everyone else. The pre-modern world was space-bound; its modern successor, time-bound. The transition took place in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and with remarkable speed, accompanied by the ubiquitous station clock: on prominent, specially constructed towers at all majorstations, inside every station booking hall, on platforms, and (in the pocket form) in the possession of railway employees. Everything that came after -- the establishment of nationally and internationally agreed time zones; factory time clocks; the ubiquity of the wrist watch; time schedules for busses, ferries, and places, for radio and television programs; school timetables; and much else -- merely followed suit."


Judt also notes the transformative consequences of the train station:

"Bringing a railway line into a large town or city was a monumental challenge. Beyond the technical and social issues -- the clearance or removal of whole districts (usually the poorest...), the bridging and tunneling past urban and natural obstacles -- there was the implication of placing at the heart of an old city a new technology, a substantial ediface, and a steady, daily flow and ebb of many tens of thousands of people. Where should stations be placed? How should they be integrated into the existing urban fabric? What should they look like?"

Tony Judt, "The Glory of the Rails," The New York Review of Books, vol. LVII, no. 20, (23 December 2010-12 January 2011): 60 & 61.

Web Resources:

smarthistory: Manet, The Railway

About the Artist

Born: Paris, 23 January 1832
Died: Paris, 30 April 1883
Nationality: French