In the Conservatory

Manet, In the Conservatory, 1879.

The man.

I am transfixed by the man’s gaze and gently extended finger, ever so slightly reaching toward the woman as he holds his cigar – leading me to the woman’s hand, to her presence in the work. Their hands barely meet – a cautious hint of fading intimacy. She does not meet his gaze… She seems absent while he seems interested and careful.


The couple’s hands.

What transpired between these two? They are likely a married couple, as indicated by their rings. She sits still and stiff, with one hand resting on her parasol and the other on the bench onto which the man leans. Perhaps she is tired from the heat of the conservatory and their stroll, but this is only how things appear on the surface. Her physical and psychological state are surely caused by something else. She is more preoccupied, absorbed in an enigma, than anything else.

The woman.

A romantic Impressionist would  paint the couple gazing at each other, or paint a blushing woman with downcast eyes. Manet, though, is not an artist of blushing women – he is an artist of confident and confrontational women. And yet this woman seems to me to be neither. She looks off in the distance to nothing, not acknowledging the man – her husband – who physically leans toward her and psychologically penetrates her space with his gaze.

 Manet only shows the viewer that intimacy between the couple has dissipated, leaving the viewer to wonder what caused the martial rift. What happened before the couple stopped to rest, and what happens after they resume their walk together, is not apparent, and the viewer is left with an image of perpetual, uncomfortable tension.

What do you think Manet is conveying with this piece?

Images from the Google Art Project.