Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632). Oil on canvas, 98 x 142 cm. National Gallery, London
When it is time to paint a bunch of revelers
Arcadian party goers are drinking and dancing near a pillar.
This pillar has a head on it and they are giving worship to Pan (or possibly Priapus) who were both connected to fertility, partying, dancing and heavy drinking, which is very clear in this painting!
These dancers have been very carefully painted in structured, flowing design; even though they clearly appear to be frantic mad.
Poussin almost certainly researched the landscape from Venetian pictures in Roman collections.
The Balcony is an image of modern, urban Parisian life and it generated plenty of critical reaction (according to John Richardson, 1982) thus, the French periodical La Vie Moderne happened to think it masked the relationship of Manet canvas, to the balcony paintings completed by Francisco Goya some years earlier.
Berthe Morisot on the left looks like royalty standing up there; with her gaze full of awareness she celebrates the very notion of an upwardly mobile and fashionable Paris.
Next to Berthe is Fanny Claus the violinist, while Antonin Guillement (another artist) is behind at the back and Leon (who was Manet’s step-son) is carrying a coffee service in woderful Parisian style.
There is certainly a feeling of leisure and urban sophistication in the picture even though we can’t see much of Paris. For example, the apartment has bold green railings and shutters that compress the depth of the balcony setting. However, Manet has contrasted pale white faces with a dark background, and in addition, the blue tie makes the atmosphere quite mysterious.
Frozen and detached from the spectator, Antonin actually had to pose fifteen times until the position was perfect, hence all of the figures look a little unusual being almost suspended in mid-air.
Viewers don’t know what is going on or what (if anything at all) is being said, thus Manet is preserving his enigma, and this makes it a difficult – but nevertheless interesting – painting to understand.
The Balcony is one of Manet’s most popular pieces and it was to be a turning point in his career. Having put forward a different image of the wealthy class in a sophisticated society to which he was now contributing, Edouard Manet gives Berthe an air of melancholy, and he is driving forward this sense of modernity, while becoming an icon of the modern world himself.
This scene of Parisian bourgeois life was extremely ‘en vogue’ for the time, so it is surprising really that the painting did go against the conventions of the day. Having painted Berthe many times during his life The Balcony was actually her very first appearance and there is no story or anecdote to go with the picture.
Manet is freeing himself from all academic constraints, by isolating and freeze framing his figures on The Balcony. In addition, the hierarchy usually attached to human figures and objects has been disregarded in this picture – strange that Manet provides more detail in the flowers than the faces!