The 1860’s saw a sudden increase in the number of ambitious paintings devoted to the pleasures of Parisian life. Few of them, however, are as savory as those by Edouard Manet, who introduced into the contemporary Realist project a deadpan irony, offhand elegance, and historical self-consciousness that utterly transformed it. Combining cryptic allusions to art of the past with luscious paint handling and bold, sometimes awkward compositions, he reconciled a cosmopolitan sophistication with a new kind of pictorial directness.
Horse racing enjoyed a revival during the Second Empire (1852–70), when the Longchamps track was built in the Bois de Boulogne, a park on the outskirts of Paris. In 1863 Manet began to plan a large, horizontal work that would convey the bustle of its crowds and the dynamism of its races. He ultimately abandoned this panoramic composition, but the Art Institute’s smaller variant retains the gist of it in more concentrated form.
As a pictorial conception, The Races at Longchamps is startling. We find ourselves on the racecourse with a cluster of onrushing horses and jockeys bearing directly down on us. With a few judicious exceptions—the vertical starting post left of center; the crisp rectangle of the viewing-stand roof at the right—everything is blurred, a device that heightens the sense of explosive movement of the galloping horses. Essentially, Manet here repeated the right two-thirds of his earlier, wider composition (an 1864 watercolor version of which survives in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.). But he zoomed in on the horses, thereby increasing the energy generated by the juxtaposition of their advancing forms and the receding fences. The result, an audacious paean to speed and chic, implements the contemporary French poet Charles Baudelaire’s dictum to seize the eternal in the contingent.
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