Manet, Edouard: The Railway (1873)

The Independent's Great Art series

A snapshot? A train passes, leaving a cloud of steam in the air. A little girl, her back turned, stands staring at it. A young woman, sitting beside her, looks up from her book to peer out. It's a glimpse, caught one clear morning in Paris, by the railtracks outside the Gare Saint-Lazare.

Edouard Manet's The Railway acts casually. It offers no story, no clear relationship between its figures, no centre of interest. It's like a slice of uninterpreted actuality, a sight a passer-by might notice, and then forget. But not quite. This street scene is composed, and into the sort of real life incident that – mixing accident with order – sticks in the memory.

Its boldest, bluntest stroke of order is the flat-on screen of railings that runs across, going off-picture left and right and top. It divides foreground from background, forcing the figures up to the front. It lays down a repeating pattern of black stripes. Like the railway itself, it's an intrusive fact. There's no train in view, but these iron railings cut through the scene like the railway line slices through the modern city.

For some (including the little girl) they're a place to gaze at a spectacle. For others (the young woman) they're just a backdrop to everyday life. Whichever – a barrier, a threshold, a stage curtain, a ground rhythm – these railway railings are a powerful emphasising device.

The whole scene is articulated on this iron grille. It stresses the figures' opposing directions: the woman backed against it, facing keenly front; the girl turned away, faceless, looking through it into the picture's depths. Its vertical shafts cut against the curves of the girl's raised arm, and her belling skirt, and the elegant tricorn gap that forms between the figures.

The blankly simple design isolates the compact visual complexity of the young woman. She's a mass of accessories: her lap filled with cuffs, book, dog, fan, her big round buttons, her carefully spread hair, her bonnet with its floral crest. But these dense social signs are just facts, not clues. And the railings' hard, dark, grid, set against the bright dispersing steam, makes a point of maximum contrast – a keynote for a picture that is full of sharp edges and soft dissolves, of silhouettes and blurs.

The back of the girl's head and neck stands out against the billowing steam. Her elbow merges into it. One side of the woman's chin is boldly defined. The other sinks untraceably into the face. The picture has a cut-out, cartoon clarity that keeps slipping into uncertainty.

It's a scene that doesn't fix. It's a bit like a frieze. There's a hint of classical statuary in the girl's raised arm and, in the line of railings, there's a hint of a classical colonnade. But they're only hints. Manet's magic is not to insist on finding the eternal in the contemporary. It's just a subliminal resonance – now you see it, now you don't – as your eye, reading signs, making patterns, seeking meanings, plays across the indifferent row of bars.

The artist

Edouard Manet (1832-83) is a cool and elusive culture-hero. He worshipped Velazquez. He painted enigmatic but confrontational images of city life – Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, Olympia, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. He continually met with rejection, scandal, and derision. Unlike other avant-gardists, he never made militant noises, nor any statement of intentions. He never stopped trying to get his work accepted. In his shortish life – he died of syphilis – he never really succeeded. But the rest is history. The Railway is on show in Art in the Age of Steam at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool .

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week