Art and Time: Manet’s ‘The Railway’

Photo by Pelayo Arbués on Unsplash


Painting and sculpture, being static works, may seem less suited to depicting time. A single work, at least, has that challenge, which is why drawn time is most commonly seen in repeated images such as Manga, comic strips and early Medieval works, where the sequence of separate images is meant to show temporal shifts.

The same applies to photography, perhaps, with the notable exception of time-lapse images, capturing sequences in time that we cannot see because they over or under-pace us.

So how can a single painting say something about time? And can it say something in a way that other media cannot?

The Railway

‘The Railway’ was painted by Edouard Manet in 1873. It depicts the Gare St. Lazare in Paris. Two figures, a girl and a woman, wait near some railings in what would be modern day Place D’Europe.

Much has been made of the structural contradictions in Manet’s painting. The strange flatness of the image, for example is often discussed. This concerns how the background seems to crowd in on the foreground, making the image lack depth. The real width of the railway cutting is not apparent from the painting and the houses in the background are closer than they should be (one of these is Manet’s studio).

Another ambiguity is the emphasis on the railings, which slash through the work like knife cuts through the canvas. In addition there is the strange attitude and ambiguity of the two main figures, the ways in which they contrast with each other and the unexplained nature of their relationship to each other.

These contradictions are not unusual for Manet. They are, in fact, a major hallmark of all his work and one of the things that make him such an interesting artist. Perhaps one of the most famous disjunction is that between the nude and the clothed, and the classical and the modern, in “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”

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

This work, incidentally, features the same model as for the older figure in ‘The Railway’: Victorine Meurent.

While Manet would perhaps have been reluctant to call himself an Impressionist painter, he shared with that group an obsession with the new, and the urban — the “heroism of modern life” as Charles Baudelaire put it. Impressionists were interested in photography, technology, the urban, the industrial, fashion and transformation. Some of these interests are very prevalent in ‘The Railway’, and are arranged, by Manet to highlight the concept of time in addition to that of space.

Depicting Time

  1. The contrasting age of the figures: A young girl and an older woman are depicted. They look in opposite directions. The woman looks at the viewer, the girl looks away. They are spatially divided in addition to being temporally divided. And yet they are also unified, by color (the use of blue and white, by the emphasis on hair style and by the black bands worn by each. This unification suggests an interpretation that they could be the same person at different stages in their life.
  2. 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.
  3. 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’.
  4. 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’

5. The railings almost divide the scene into slices of similar width, almost like still photographs on a reel of film. One can imagine the movement of the train as a camera pans across the scene. It is as if there were many scenes in the one. This is a technique that arcs back to early medieval paintings that depicted time by repeating figures and events as they were transformed on the same canvas.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

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

It may be instructive to compare ‘The Railway’ with Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump’, painted in 1768.

The latter painting shows different family members surrounding an experiment. A scientist figure who represents Sir Isaac Newton is holding the lid on a glass bowl that contains a bird. The air is being removed from the bowl and if the scientist does not lift the cover, the bird will suffocate and die.

The experiment represents the power of science in the age of industry. It is the future for all the characters surrounding it. The youngest female looks on at her future, while the oldest male looks away. The future — in terms of natural life — is uncertain.

Another interesting aspect to this work is the single light source, a candle behind a glass containing a skull fragment. That lighting effect is not so obvious in ‘The Railway’ but while that canvas is uniformly lit, the brightest light source there is effectively the steam from the train.


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