The small but exquisite work, "Women at the Races" defines Edouard Manet as a "flâneur." Flâneur was the term for the purposeful male stroller of Paris, a cultured sophisticate of sharp observation and ready comment about the flow of events, the city’s movements, and changes in fashion—in short, all life.
Manet came from a well-to-do bourgeois family, and studied with the academic painter Thomas Couture. Yet he rejected the traditional, elevated subjects favored by academic painters, finding inspiration in contemporary life in the largely rebuilt and modernized Paris of the Second Empire. He executed "Women at the Races" with extremely sketchy modeling and used large flat patches of color and bold silhouettes to create the effect of flickering sunlight and shadow.
This painting shows Manet’s cool observation of the day-to-day life of Parisian society. The women are spectators at a horse race in the fashionable Bois de Boulogne, outside Paris. Horseracing, recently imported from England, was the latest fad among wealthy Parisians. The women wear plain, though luxurious, dresses and hold parasols to protect themselves from the sun. One looks towards the track while the other gazes off into the crowd. With unerring brushstrokes, Manet captured the character and self-assurance expressed in their poses, demeanors, and actions.
This painting is a fragment of a larger painting Manet completed in 1864 of the horse races at Longchamp (near Paris). While the action of the race has been removed, the remaining portion conveys the true theme of the original painting: the fashionable sociability of modern life.