Is Jewish Girl Star of Edouard Manet's Famed Painting 'The Railway'?

Mystery Child's Father May Have Been Friend of Impressionist

The Girl in the Picture: The woman on the left in Manet’s painting is his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, but the identity of her young companion is less certain.
The Art Institute of Chicago
The Girl in the Picture: The woman on the left in Manet’s painting is his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, but the identity of her young companion is less certain.

By Menachem Wecker

Published August 13, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Cast in the major exhibition “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” (through September 29 at the Art Institute of Chicago), certain paintings expose their undergarments, so to speak.

The exhibit, jointly organized with Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was shown earlier this year, features a Who’s Who of impressionist painters. One of the better-known paintings, Édouard Manet’s 1873 “The Railway” (National Gallery of Art), bears a particularly compelling enigma. Posed in front of a gate, a girl turns her back to the viewer and stares into the distance, while a young woman reads a book and holds a dog on her lap. The older figure is easily identifiable as Manet’s favorite model, Victorine Meurent, but the identity of her young companion, who wears a white dress with a blue bow, is more controversial.

An entry in the exhibition catalog follows the identification by a dozen or so scholars — including Princeton University’s Philip Nord, Stony Brook University’s James Henry Rubin and Yale University’s Carol Armstrong — of the girl as the daughter of Manet’s friend, Alphonse Hirsch (1843–1884), whose studio was near Manet’s. Hirsch’s daughter gets a name, Suzanne, in the 1987 book “Manet’s Contemplation at the Gare Saint-Lazare” by Harry Rand, a senior curator at the National Museum of American History.

Hirsch was apparently a Jewish painter, although Henry Rubin calls him a “banker,” and art historian Michel Melot refers to Hirsch in his 1996 book “The Impressionist Print” as “an artist but mainly a hanger-on” to Edgar Degas. (Degas was one of several prominent artists who depicted Hirsch in his work.) Hirsch, according to a marginal Jewish Encyclopedia biography, created a portrait of France’s chief rabbi, Lazare Isidor, in 1877.

Art Institute curators referred questions about Hirsch to Juliet Wilson-Bareau, a freelance curator based in London who has published widely on Manet. In her 1998 catalog “Manet and Monet and the Gare Saint-Lazare”, Wilson-Bareau calls Hirsch “a purveyor of agreeable Salon pictures and portraits” and adds in a footnote, “Little appears to have been recorded about the life and career of Alphonse Hirsch.” She adds that nothing is known of a marriage that might support the prominent Manet historian Adolphe Tabarant’s claim that the “Railway” child is Hirsch’s daughter.

In an email to the Forward, Bareau referred to Hirsch’s paintings as “pretty second-rate” and added that “although he must have admired Manet enormously (and was evidently a good friend), he didn’t or couldn’t take the leap into committed, resolutely ‘modern’ art.” Wilson-Bareau says she she believes that Manet’s painting may have been sketched in Hirsch’s studio overlooking his garden.

In the absence of decisive scholarly help, some online sleuthing was necessary to further track the evasive Hirsch. The May 1, 1879, issue of the French Jewish review “Archives Israélites,” published by Isidore Cahen, announced the marriage of Hirsch, the painter of chief rabbi Isidor, to Henriette Perugia. The notice adds that Perugia’s sister was married to Arthur Sassoon of the wealthy Sassoon family.

Perugia appears to have been born in 1855 and to have married Alban Valabreque at some point after Hirsch’s death, although neither that nor any mention of a daughter named Suzanne can be found in the French Jewish publication. This complicates the timeline considerably. Hirsch and Perugia married six or seven years after Manet painted “Railway,” and Suzanne certainly doesn’t look like she is 7 or 8 years old in the painting.

Either Hirsch had a daughter from a previous marriage, whom the wedding announcement neglected to mention — in which case the search for Manet’s young model is back to square one — or the girl in Manet’s painting is not Suzanne Hirsch. Either way, there’s a good deal more to the painting than meets the eye.

Menachem Wecker is a Chicago-based writer on art and religion.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.