Beyond the iron railings are railway tracks, a shed, a group of workers, and residential buildings. The setting is realistic, being a common, everyday sight passers by would see in the area around Place de l’Europe, next to Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. Manet had his studio in the vicinity at the time.
The Railways is noted for its strong imagery. The seated woman is Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favourite model. She sits in a pensive mood, wearing a fashionable deep blue dress, with light buttons and wide cuffs, and spotting a black hat. An open book, a fan, and a sleeping puppy rests on her lap. The dress perfectly illustrates middle-class propriety of the times. The attention to detail is striking, with the hat tilted forward and held in place with a tie-back bow, brilliantly betraying the fashion of the times.
Next to Meurent is a little girl, who in real-life was the daughter of Alphonse Hirsch, Manet's neighbour. She spots a white dress with a large blue bow, a perfect contrast to Meurent's sombre dress. The girl has her back to the viewer, and is watching the train pass beneath them, as illustrated by the thick cloud of white steam.
Manet’s artistic talents become even more evident in his skilful use of the hat to elevate the seated women to a higher level compared to the standing girl, and at the same time emphasise the flatness of the picture plane in a neat way. The striking interplay of flatness and depth is a noteworthy innovation, made possible owing to Manet’s mastery over Japanese woodblock prints.
Another striking feature of "the Railway" is the attention to detail. Behind the iron railings and near the railway tracks are a group of workers, working next to a shed. Even the facades of residential houses in the yonder distance are depicted in great detail.
What makes the Railways a true masterpiece of the times is the rich symbolism it depicts.
Even as "The Railway" offers no story or any clear relationship among the different figures, it delivers a powerful message. The carefully spread hair and the floral crest in the bonnet of the seated woman, the dark, hard grid set against the brightness of the dispersing steam, and the sharp edges and the soft dissolves of the silhouettes, all exemplify the powerful social signs contained in the painting, while being illustrative of the painter's attention to detail.
The cropped dress, and the subtle diagonals, offer a sense of deep uncertainty, which resonates with the context of the times. Manet began work on the Railway in 1872, when the conditions were bleak, with civil strife, combat, and starvation the order of the day. The Paris Commune had been overthrown following a violent civil strife, in 1871. France had been defeated by the Prussians, and Otto von Bismarck had effected a devastating siege of Paris.
Place d’l Europe, the setting of the painting, was a relatively new quarter at the time, developed with a utilitarian perspective, and resonated order, logic, and efficiency. Several art historians interpret Manet’s choice of setting to suggest him being at home in the modern world. Such an interpretation is noteworthy, considering Manet’s short life was marked by several scandal’s rejection, and derision.
An alternative interpretation holds "the Railways" as an illustration of the impact of industrialisation. The deep sense of uncertainty, the fracture between the foreground figures and background setting, and the cage-like feature of the railings, inside which the workers work, all strengthen such a viewpoint. Noted critics such as Robert Herbert opines the cage-like division that cuts of the railway workers from the middle-class figures reflects the rigid divisions of labour brought about by industrialisation, with the railings illustrative of an artificial imposition of order.
Edouard Manet (1832-1883), the cool avant-grade artist and an icon of the times, is noted for his rich and vivid paintings that ably depict enigmatic, yet confrontational images of life in the city. Along with "Olympia," "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe," "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," and others, "The Railway" ranks among his masterpieces.