Art and Time: Manet’s ‘The Railway’

Photo by Pelayo Arbués on Unsplash


Music, literature and cinema are temporal arts. To understand a work in any of these media, you need to move with it through time. Perhaps because of this, these art forms are well suited to illustrating aspects of time, through editing in cinema, temporal jumps and flashbacks in literature, and rhythms and sequences in music.

The Railway

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe

Depicting Time

Given this, ‘The Railway’ can be said to depict time in the following ways:

  1. The attention of the girl is on a steam train and away from us. She is looking at the technology that will shape her future.
  2. The girls future is actually unknown to us both literally and figuratively. We literally cannot see what she sees. We can only infer the existence of a train from the steam. Power and motion into the future are inferred from the vague and the undefined — in some ways reminiscent of William Turner’s ‘Rain Steam and Speed’.
  3. The older woman is not looking at the future in the same way that the girl is. She simply attends to the viewer, as if distracted, from her book. She is already somewhat apart from the process of time because she is older.
Turner: ‘Rain Steam and Speed’

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768


I started out by discussing different art forms and how they depict time. I hope to have shown by now that painting, the most static form, contains within it the most interesting and creative possibilities for depicting time. This is perhaps because, in essence, constraint is the main driver of the creative imagination.

Frank invents, codes, tests and deploys new cloud initiatives in the digital health sector.

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