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When an elegant ambler goes back to the easel

By Margaret Tsuda / June 5, 1985

WHERE is the railroad in this painting of the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris? Those who grew up while locomotives were powered by steam will recognize both the scene of a street overlooking a train station and the child's rapt attention to the ``iron horse'' breathing out white clouds of vapor. For us it is nostalgic; for the painter, Edouard Manet, it was a salute to a symbol of the power and forward pace of the industrial era which in 1873 was still developing. He admired the railroads so much that he had traveled from Versailles to Paris in the cab of a locomotive, watching the engineer and fireman. ``Theirs is a dog's life,'' he reported to a friend. ``These men are modern heroes.'' Although he intended to paint a more direct tribute, the indirect and somewhat ambiguous treatment of this work is characteristic of Manet. In each of his paintings there are elements that do not readily fit into a neat, overall statement, and interpretations of art critics vary widely. He came from a well-to-do, conservative family, yet, without intending it at all, he became the leader of the young artists who challenged the conservative autocrats (painters all) of the Institut de France who conducted the Paris Salon exhibit each year. For an artist to succeed in France at the time -- or even survive -- it was necessary for his or her paintings to be accepted and shown at the Salon.

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Today we wonder at the difficulties this tremendously gifted painter encountered. But even so gracious and apparently ingenuous a work as this one can serve to illustrate many of his points of departure from the canons of the art establishment he faced. His harshest critics remained unreconciled throughout his life, although he did manage to obtain both the coveted designation of hors concours (signifying that his paintings were accepted by the Salon without having to be passed by the judges), and the even greater distinction of being named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

His choice of subject was usually a cause for disapproval. The preferred mode was historical or mythological panoramas, not casual scenes such as any Parisian stroller might encounter every day. The composition would have been frowned upon: There is no evidence of the so-called vanishing-point perspective whereby background objects such as houses and trees diminish back to a horizon point in the center of the canvas. Manet's background vanishes only under a cloud of steam.

Equally disconcerting would be his arranging the figures in a very compressed foreground space. A decent interval between the painted person and the viewer was the thing to have. Here, the lady is so far up front that her skirt protrudes, so to speak, underneath the picture frame. And the direct eye contact she establishes with the viewer is almost unique to Manet. The technique most approved by the Salon judges was one of glossy smoothness over the entire canvas. Manet's was an artful amalgam of very rough summary strokes, as in the stone wall and background, and a beautiful finish reminiscent of his most admired painter, Vel'azquez, evident in the figures and the bunch of grapes the child has left on the parapet. This method of painting provoked great critical ire but also opened up the way for his younger associates, the Impressionists and Pointillists.

The contumely and ridicule heaped upon his paintings by some of his influential contemporaries is all the more puzzling because of Manet himself. Affable, courteous, witty, without hatred for his detractors, he was the epitome of a scion of a wealthy, socially prominent family. His father was a judge and a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Justice; his mother's godfather was King Charles XIV of Sweden. The painter cut an elegant figure as he strolled around his beloved Paris, his outfit completed by pearl gray top hat, gray suede gloves, cane, and carnation in his buttonhole.