The Balcony (1868-9) by Edouard Manet
Interpretation of Impressionist Genre Painting

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The Balcony
By Edouard Manet.
Regarded as one of the
great modern paintings of
the nineteenth century.

The Balcony (1868-9)


Analysis of The Balcony
Explanation of Other Impressionist Genre Paintings


Name: The Balcony (Le Balcon) (1868-9)
Artist: Edouard Manet (1832-83)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Genre painting
Movement: Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


The Balcony, a lovely example of Manet's innovative modern art, was exhibited at the official Paris Salon of 1869. The painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94) bought it for 3,000 francs at the sale of Manet's studio in February 1884, and on his death bequeathed it to the Nation. Like several of Manet's early works, like Olympia (1863), Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867) and Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872) - it is strongly influenced by Spanish painting: in this case, Majas on a Balcony (1800-1810, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) by Goya (1746-1828). Like a number of Spanish painters, both Goya and his illustrious predecessor Velazquez - whose works were closely studied by Manet in the Louvre Museum and in Spain - were noted for their exceptional handling of the black colours. This talent was also acquired by Manet himself, and helps to explain why he is seen as being quite detached from the Impressionist group, whose palette rarely included the very dark colours.

NOTE: Famous paintings by Manet include: Dejeuner sur L'herbe (1863); Portrait of Emile Zola (1868); and Road-Menders in the Rue de Berne (1878).

Analysis of The Balcony by Edouard Manet

It was at Boulogne where Manet was staying with his family in 1868, that the idea came to him to paint a picture of people in a room with a balcony, seen from outside. It was the strange contrasts of light which induced him to make the attempt, which was carried out in Paris. The painting shows four figures. Sitting on a stool on the left of the picture is the Impressionist painter and artist's model Berthe Morisot (1841-95) - who later married Manet's brother, Eugene (1833-92). Standing in the middle is the landscape painter and Jury member of the Salon des Artistes Francais Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet (1843-1918). On the right is the concert violinist Fanny Claus (1846-77), the closest friend of Manet's wife, Suzanne Leenhoff (1830-1906), who later married the painter Pierre Prins (1838-1913). Lastly, the model for the young boy in the shadows at the back carrying a dish filled with food, is believed to be Leon-Edouard Leenhoff (1852-1927), the son of Manet and his Dutch wife, Suzanne. Leon was a regular subject in his father's paintings, appearing in some seventeen compositions. On the floor, behind the railings, there is a hydrangea flower and a dog with a ball. Manet had made a first sketch of the Balcony at Boulogne, in which Mademoiselle Claus occupies the place filled by Berthe Morisot in the final picture.



This very curious picture, partly inspired by the 'Majas' of Goya, was first shown to the public at the 1869 Salon. Berthe Morisot wrote about the private viewing to her sister: "I found Manet with his hat on the back of his head and looking demented. He begged me to go and see his picture because he did not dare to do so himself. He laughed, looked worried, swearing all the time both that the Balcony was a very bad picture and that it would be very successful." She herself seemed pleased with how Manet had painted her, for she added: "I appear strange rather than ugly. I hear that those looking at me have murmured the words Femme fatale".

The art critics, however, refused to sheathe their weapons, and, though less abusive than they had been over Manet's Olympia (1863), they treated him with contempt and severity. This was primarily because The Balcony took huge liberties with the conventions of the day. The painting tells no story or anecdote; moreover, the protagonists are not actors but merely 'present'. Morisot looks like a remote and inaccessible heroine; Fanny Claus and Antoine Guillemet appear to be quite indifferent; all of which creates a huge lack of meaning.

Furthermore, the green of the shutters and balustrade, as well as the violent contrast between the girls' white dresses and the darkness of the interior background, were perceived as unaesthetic. Indeed, the whole composition was too discordant and too 'modern' for comfort - even the flowers received more attention from the artist than some of the faces.

The figures are harshly frontally lit and are detached both from each other and from the spectator, frozen in rigid poses. Manet employs the ironwork of the balcony and the louvred shutters as flattening devices, compressing the apparent depth of the balcony and the interior beyond it, and emphasizing the two-dimensionality of the picture surface. He thereby establishes pictorial tensions and raises queries about the relationship between the spatial possibilities of a painting, and the space of the world outside the painting. Such questions are increasingly frequently posed in Manet's later work, culminating in A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882, Courtauld Gallery, London).

The effect of this criticism on Manet caused Berthe Morisot to write: "Poor Manet is sad. His exhibits are, as usual, not to the taste of the public - a perpetual source of surprise to him."

The Balcony remained in Manet's studio till his death, and hung beside his Olympia. Today it is regarded as one of his greatest genre paintings.

Explanation of Other Impressionist Genre Paintings

Race Horses in front of the Stands (1866-8) by Degas.
Musee d'Orsay.

Family Reunion (1867) by Frederic Bazille.
Musee d'Orsay.

The Ballet Class (1871-4) by Degas.
Musee d'Orsay.

Bazille's Studio (1870) by Frederic Bazille.
Musee d'Orsay.

The Cradle (1873) by Berthe Morisot.
Musee d'Orsay.

The Floor Scrapers (1875) by Gustave Caillebotte.
Musee d'Orsay.

Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte.
Art Institute of Chicago.


• For analysis of other Impressionist genre paintings, see: Homepage.

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