The 1850s onwards witnessed an explosive growth in the number of so-called World’s Expositions (or World’s Fairs), and in 1867 France held the largest one yet. The exposition occupied the entire Champ de Mars in Paris, to where spectators thronged from the whole world. Édouard Manet was excluded from the exposition’s official art programme, and he therefore erected his own exhibition pavilion on a height on the right bank of the Seine, adjacent to Trocadero, from where one had a magnificent view of the exposition grounds.
Manet’s main interest in this painting, however, was not the world’s exposition itself, and it serves more as a backdrop for the scattered figures and groups of the foreground; among these figures we can identify Leon Koella Leenhoff, the son of Mme Manet, as the young boy walking a dog. Rather than presenting a unifying or overarching narrative, the painting illustrates the pulsating, fragmentary diversity of modern life in the city. Manet presumably used a number of individual studies when executing the painting, though any such studies seem to be lost now.
Manet chose to abandon the painting while it was still a sketch, as a more urgent event demanded his attention: the execution of the French-backed Emperor Maximilian in Mexico in June 1867. The painting was sold for a relatively modest sum (as it was unfinished) at the auction following Manet’s death. For a while it was owned by the prominent Manet collector Auguste Pellerin, before becoming available again on the Parisian market during the First World War, when it was acquired by the Norwegian shipowner Tryggve Sagen. The picture was subsequently purchased by the Friends of the National Gallery.
Text: Nils Messel
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0