Édouard Manet, The Balcony

Édouard Manet, The Balcony, 1868-69, oil on canvas, 66-1/2 x 44-1/4″ (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

The three principal figures depicted are each friends of the artist. From left to right they are: the painters Berthe Morisot and Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet, and Fanny Claus, a violinist. Some have suggested that the fourth figure, barely visible in the shadows, is the young Leon Leenhoff, the son of Manet’s wife.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re looking at Manet’s “The Balcony.” It’s really an extraordinary painting. Clearly, he’s looking at Goya. We have a number of recognizable figures, with the exception of the servant in the background, who’s barely visible. We have a painter who’s standing, the male, Guillemet, a woman on the right who is a violinist, an important friend and painter, Berthe Morisot.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:25] It feels to me very much like a painting about greens and blacks. The greens of the shutters. The green of the balustrade. The whites of their dresses. The colors are lovely.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] Almost like a Whistler in that it’s a study of color.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] Also, a feeling very much of that kind of thing that we expect of Manet, of a image of modern, urban life. Although we don’t see a city here, it’s implied, and that we’re among the fashionable class of the city. The man looks very much like the type of a flâneur. The women are clearly upper class.

[1:03] There’s a feeling of leisure, of being urban and sophisticated and looking out over the balconies of Paris onto the streets below, enjoying the crowd and the flow of people, and also that sense of being disconnected themselves. So while they’re observing the flow of modern life, they don’t interact with each other. They’re in their own minds, in a way.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] They don’t interact with the life beyond the balustrade, either. That sense of dislocation is really important to this painting. It’s all about different kinds of separation, isn’t it?

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Mm-hmm.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] I’m struck by the ways in which the male artist is standing and gazing out [and] upward slightly. Morisot’s are the only eyes. Remember, she’s so much about sight and vision itself.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] As an artist, as a painter.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] Her eyes are the only ones that are distinct and focused. She seems to be gazing in a way that is full of awareness.

Dr. Harris: [2:01] It’s true. There’s a consciousness that he’s given her that he hasn’t given the other two figures exactly, or as much consciousness.

Dr. Zucker: [2:10] I’m also interested in space here. Because in the traditional Second Empire Haussmann architecture, you have a balcony, but it tends to be a very narrow and shallow balcony. That shallowness is evident here.

[2:24] There’s just enough room for a potted hydrangea, which is beautifully rendered. Of course, this is all very fashionable, as you said. You have the porcelain vase down below. The blues of the hydrangea and of the vase play against the greens in a really subtle and interesting way. This painting really is about, in a sense, the alienation of modern life.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] You know when we say alienation, it has like [a] negative connotation. There’s part of me that wonders maybe this isn’t negative. Maybe this is just a quality, a feature, a felt characteristic of modern life, of being located more in individual subjectivity, less in a community.

[3:02] This way that the subjective and the individual comes more and more to the fore in the late 19th century and that personal subjective quality of vision does, too.

Dr. Zucker: [3:12] There are formal ways that that is achieved. Not only are the figures looking in each of their own directions, in a sense, preoccupied by modern life, but the most striking aspects that they hold, each one is facing a different direction.

[3:25] You’ve got the green umbrella, diagonal right. You’ve got that brown fan that Morisot holds, diagonal left. Then you’ve got the tie, which is in a sense its visual equivalent, which is moving vertically and to the left.

Dr. Harris: [3:38] Everything moves out and away from the painting.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] In its own separate way.

[3:42] This is a painting about its fashionableness. It’s not just that he’s rendering how chic they are. This is a painting that celebrates the very notion of a bourgeois fashion.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Édouard Manet, The Balcony," in Smarthistory, November 20, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/edouard-manet-the-balcony/.