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
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game