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The railway

Painting, 1873, 93×114 cm

Description of the artwork «The railway»

It is difficult to recognize the very scandalous model who posed for Édouard Manet’s Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass  in this decently dressed lady with a child. Unless her direct defiant look betrays her. But it’s really her, Victorine Meurent.

Victorine Meurent returned unexpectedly. Nothing had been heard about her for six years, no one knew where she had disappeared. They said that all those years, Manet’s favourite model had lived in America. She had nothing to leave in Paris, nothing to regret either: poverty, dreams of acting glory, a guitar and several artists who were willing to pay her for painting her nude. Therefore, without hesitation, Victorine rushed overseas for some passionate fatal love. And when she returned, she again agreed to sit for Manet. Although, she warned that this time she had completely different plans, that she posed for their old friendship and sincere heartfelt affection, but she was already preparing her first paintings for the Salon and, yes, she also became an artist.

In The Railway, she is finally dressed, moreover, she is decently dressed. Instead of the ill-fated black cat, which caused a storm of indignation from critics and spectators, Manet returned a peacefully sleeping puppy to her lap. The dog, a symbol of loyalty and fidelity, slept on the bed of Titian’s Venus of Urbino and was mercilessly replaced in Manet’s Olympia by a hissing black kitten with an arched back. The cat is outrageous, the embodiment of uncertainty, lust, witch nature and, finally, depravity — it stood at the feet of naked Olympia and hissed at the viewer.
The painting was accepted at the Salon in 1874, the year of the first impressionist exhibition in the studio of the photographer Nadar. The Railway was absolutely decent, and nothing distracted the viewer from pious thoughts. But Manet was laughed at again.

A modern viewer can hardly understand what was funny n this picture for some cartoonist or magazine critic. They were infuriated by the absence of subject matter and the non-literary nature of what was depicted: it was either a portrait, or a genre scene; there was a railway, but there were no trains seen. This is the way people look at store signs from a passing carriage, and not at a woman with a child. They said that the picture was schematic, and the perspective was incompetently distorted, the front space seemed to be squeezed and imprinted into the iron bars of the fence.

That was the last time Victorine Meurent posed for Manet. They took her paintings in the Salon several times, but not more, later she became addicted to drinking, began to live with a young female model, played the guitar at the entrance to Parisian cafés and sold drawings to their drunken visitors. And after Manet’s death, she wrote a letter to his widow, in which she asked to give her a share of the sale of the paintings with her image. She claimed that Édouard promised to share with her when he would finally become famous and start making money. We don’t know how Madame Manet reacted to Victorine’s letter. We only now that in 1898, The Railway was sold for 100 thousand francs to the American Henry Osborne Havemeyer. The painting belonged to his descendants until 1956, when they donated it to the National Art Gallery in Washington.

Written by Anna Sidelnikova

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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Portrait

Style of art: Impressionism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1873

Size: 93×114 cm

Artwork in selections: 60 selections

Exhibitions history