Some people see a blue and black dress. Some people see gold and white. When Édouard Manet’s “In the Conservatory” (1878/79) first came to Berlin, it was seen as almost scandalously erotic and immoral, even making the Prussian Empress blush.
But why? There’s no nudity, no suggestiveness. It’s just two people chilling in a garden, right? And they’re a married couple! What’s the problem?
Ambiguity is a fascinating thing, especially in art. And Manet’s painting, as with all great art (and all great relationships), becomes more fascinating, complex and ambiguous the deeper you dive.
What is this couple’s relationship really like?
Is Madame Guillemet feeling detached as she stares into the distance? Is she bored by the presence of her husband?
Or is there some hidden current between them, something intimate and familiar in the way he casually leans over the bench next to her?
Right at the centre of the picture, the couple’s hands almost touch. Is it separation we see here, or a restrained intimacy?
Her other hand is gloved ...
... but this one is naked.
Their wedding rings are prominent, and what’s with Monsieur Guillemet’s jutting cigar? Perhaps it’s just a cigar (Sigmund Freud was still studying for his doctorate in Vienna when this was painted, after all) ...
... but in the literature of the time, conservatories were seen as new and exotic, the setting for affairs and erotic scenes.
Whatever the truth, “In the Conservatory” is a reminder that nobody but a couple really understands their own relationship. It’s all just too ambiguous and complicated.
In the Conservatory by Edouard ManetAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz