Art History · Writing Prompt Responses

WordPress Writing 101 Prompt #9: What Manet’s Girls Saw

For today’s prompt about writing from a different point of view, I decided to describe a work of art from the perspective of a figure depicted in the work. I have chosen Edouard Manet’s Railroad (Gare St-Lazare) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., a painting noted for its opaque psychology, unclear narrative, and lack of obvious emotion. In other words, it is a perfect blank slate onto which I can fashion my own interpretation.

Edouard Manet, The Railway (Gare St-Lazare), 1873, oil on canvas, 36 3/4 x 43 7/8 in, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Édouard Manet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“I wish they would not all stare at us so openly. I suppose decorum went out with the 1860s, but must they really be so bold about it? I already regret enough that I must take subject her to travelling in this fashion, and the attention from passers-by makes me more uncomfortable by the moment. I am just grateful that she is thus far completely unaware, but I fear that such luck will not last for long. Such an innocent little girl, my sister, but far too intelligent not to eventually notice that something is amiss. She is so adorably fascinated by the trains, the sights and sounds of the busy station, even the smoke in the air – certainly the only traveler who views our impending journey as an adventure rather than a nuisance. But any moment, she will turn around and catch a glimpse of some middle-aged man regarding us with suspicion and judgment, and she will ask me what is wrong. How am I supposed to explain to her that the very nature of our presence is enough to make most people assume some very unkind things about us? Two girls unaccompanied by any sort of escort must, by their logic at least, be the wrong sort of people. I don’t ever want my sister to think we are the “wrong sort of people”. Aunt Ida’s illness and Mother’s stay in Lyon to care for her are not of our doing, and the necessity of our travelling just the two of us (and Mollie, whom she refused to leave without) to be with them should not make us the subject of such scorn and speculation. This trip is not one I relish making, but I must reunite our family now in case it is my only chance. Judge me, if you will, but please do it while my sister’s back is turned.”

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