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Pictures at an Exhibition – Edouard Manet’s scene(s) from a marriage ‘In the Conservatory’ (Dans la serre)

by

Theresa Elisabeth Mack

Manet’s 1879 oil on canvas painting ‘In the Conservatory’ can be organised on myriad planes, beginning on the level of the dark green background in which the primary scene is set. The dark blue of the bench cuts the scene in two; one half dominated by the seated woman looking smart in her dress and colour-coordinated accessories, her attention focused on something outside the frame; the other by a man with a thick moustache standing behind her, leaning on the bench. He is equally well-dressed in frock coat and light trousers. Both seem equally at ease in their surroundings. The only point of connection between the two characters (and, thus, the various levels of the work) is their hands. Hers rests nonchalantly on the armrest of the bench, while his is close to carry his weight. While his pointer finger is indeed stretched out in her direction, it is only on second viewing that we notice that this is due to the fact that he is holding a cigarette, not out of some sense of conjugal longing. Both hands are adorned with gold rings, signifying that this is indeed a marital scene.

One does note a certain calculated contrast in the scene between spatial closeness and internal distance, not only in the depiction of the two figures, but also in their relationship to the rest of the work. Note the plants that surround the couple so closely. The dark green conveys a sense of something foreign, exotic, and secret. There is an irony then in the placement of these figures, so disconnected from the almost sexual exoticism of the foliage, almost as if they have stepped into a scene with the wrong backdrop.

Nor does there seem to be much deeper connection between the two figures, despite their physical proximity. Their looks are absent, distracted. She looks into the distance, while he seems to look straight through her, possibly even looking inward.

That being said, there is merit in a different interpretation of this work, especially when focusing on the calm that is most noticeably evoked by the looks of the two figures. Perhaps we are looking at a scene of a couple that have found a deeper peace and connection in marriage that has transcended the petty jealousies of life and allows for a wordless union that allows both parties their freedom in an atmosphere of acceptance and affection. What an extraordinary image that may simultaneously make us witnesses to marital crisis and conjugal bliss.

It is a matter of record that Manet did indeed paint a married couple (by the name of Guillemet) for this scene. He encouraged them to be at their ease, to talk, to laugh, and to move freely while he worked. It would seem that his efforts to have them ‘loosen up’ bore little fruit, given that is entirely legitimate to see this scene as having directly succeeded some sort of argument between the pair. One can almost hear the dialogue that preceded this silent scene. The Guillemets were members of the Parisian high society of the time and ran a fashion house in the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré. One could easily imagine a barb or two regarding her choice of accessories or the length of his moustache. Perhaps he allowed his distracted eyes to linger on a female customer for a little too long? Perhaps she hadn’t looked sufficiently chaste while helping a certain young man pick out a frock coat the day before?

I would suggest that it is exactly this tension between knowing and uncertainty, those contrasts and contradictions that make this particular work so interesting. Isn’t that what makes art so intense and exciting? The fantasy and creativity of someone else inspiring one’s own fantasy. Having written this in isolation, one can only be thankful that physical confinement will never be a barrier to one’s fantasy. I hope I could inspire yours with this piece. TM/DPFC

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