Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: The Railway

Édouard Manet's 1873 The Railway showcased the unfolding urban landscape of modern Paris. The two figures in the painting are standing in front of railway tracks that led to the largest train station in Paris, the Gare Saint-Lazare. At this time trains were beginning to grant urban residents greater freedom of movement, as the automobile would not be mass-produced for several more decades. The trains would have been powered by the combustion of coal, the heat from which converted water into steam to drive a reciprocating engine. This was a time when the smoke from trains and factories would be seen as symbols of economic progress, rather than environmental destruction.

The Railway by Edouard Manet artManet's decision to depict modern scenes disrupted the artistic conventions of the time. In The Railway, the bars of the iron gate tend to divide the composition into regular intervals. This can be contrasted with the traditional preference for a natural background, which leaves the composition open and boundless. The iron bars in this painting can evoke the same sense of having constraints as does urban life today.

The Railway has also been interpreted as an optimistic view of the future. The girl looks down, perhaps fascinated, at the passing marvel of modern technology. The woman sits, a serene look on her face, with an open book in her lap. An open book has long been used in art to symbolize the power of knowledge, and this interpretation is not undermined by the modernity of this scene. The same promises of knowledge—personal fulfillment, economic success, social progress—seem to be more and more applicable as time goes on.

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