When an elegant ambler goes back to the easel
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.
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.
We may imagine this somewhat dandified gentleman pausing before an attractive scene of a young matron, beautifully dressed in a handsome dark blue gown with white ruffles, a brown straw flower- and ribbon-bedecked hat with her young daughter in summery white, a wide, pale blue, plaid silk sash around her waist. It would probably be the nursemaid's day off and maman has brought her book along, knowing the activity and clatter of the train station will entertain her little girl. The top-hatted boulevardier whips a sketch pad and pencil out of his pocket to record that ``first sensation'' so important to the artists repudiating the set tableaux favored by the academicians. The woman looks up with a curious but distant glance, and Manet knows he has one of ``his'' compositions.
The painting demonstrates what his friend, the poet Baudelaire, called Manet's ``decided taste for reality, modern reality.'' The Gare Saint-Lazare satisfied his liking for a recognizable Parisian locale and for the ``new age.'' One might speculate that the two figures appealed not only because of their visible charm, but because it is the child who is delighted with the steam engine just as the artist is delighted, while the mother represents an adulthood that has lost its youthful enthusiasm for newness. She is painted as not that far from childhood herself, with her unbound reddish hair flowing out from under her ladylike hat. And it is she who gives the snoozing puppy a cozy place on her lap. Perhaps the child's neat coiffure suggests that she, too, will soon become an adult who can turn her back on such a tremendously exciting event as a locomotive's arrival. This may be reading more into the painting than was put there, and it may be only as Manet once remarked, ``Anything containing the spark of humanity, containing the spirit of the age, is interesting.''
At any rate, we may follow the elegant ambler back to his studio, where he becomes the fiercely dedicated artist who declares, ``Every time I paint, I throw myself into the water in order to learn to swim.'' Accustomed as we are to abstract ``action'' paintings, this work hardly looks like the work of a painter who felt that ``an artist has to be a spontaneist.'' And in fact the work is not at all spontaneous in the sense of the plein air Impressionists, who set up their canvases in the fields and even in boats to paint what they saw. These had acknowledged Manet's revolutionary leadership with admiration and praise; he had painted with them at Argenteuil, but he never became part of their group. Manet's spontaneity was something more subtle and more personal. His paintings have a peculiar dissimilarity from one another, which makes each of them quite individual, although each has the Manet boldness of style.
A painting as well defined and complex as ``Gare Saint-Lazare'' would have to be painted in the studio and models employed to enable the artist to realize the solidity and marvels of anatomy of the human figure. Art historians note that a model named Victorine Meurend posed for the woman, and the daughter of a fellow artist for the child. This fact can be misleading nowadays, when the use of models is no longer extensive. Manet was not painting Victorine dressed up like a woman he had seen; rather, he painted the woman he saw with the model's help. Just as we do not expect the young man with an attach'e case entering a new car in a television commercial to actually be a rising executive, we know he is intended to represent one. So it was with painters' models. A good one could pose as the personification of ``Justice'' for one artist and a street waif for another.
The fuss and furor Manet caused by his break with the then-accepted standards of French art are remembered only in art histories, but he opened up the way for the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves, and all the succeeding ``new'' ways of seeing and painting. Railroads no longer signify progress in travel and transport. It is, then, a tribute to the enduring nature of art itself and to Manet that this painting gives no hint of obsolescence but remains delightfully, perennially fresh and interesting.