When Manet painted this piece, scenes of bourgeois life were in vogue. Yet The Balcony went against the conventions of the day. All the subjects were close acquaintances of the artist, especially Berthe Morisot who here, pictured sitting in the foreground, makes her first appearance in Manet's work, and who went on to become one of his favourite models. The painting tells no story or anecdote; the protagonists are frozen, as if isolated in an interior dream, evidence that Manet was freeing himself from academic constraints, despite the obvious reference to Goya's Majas at the Balcony.
At its presentation at the 1869 Salon, this enigmatic group portrait was overwhelmingly misunderstood. "Close the shutters!" was the sarcastic reaction of the caricaturist Cham while another critic attacked "this gross art" and Manet who "lowered himself to the point of being in competition with the painters of the building trade". The vividness of the colours, the green of the balustrade and shutters, the blue of the man's tie, as well as the brutal contrast between the white dresses and the darkness of the background, were perceived as provocation. The hierarchy usually attached to human figures and objects has been disregarded: the flowers receiving more detail than some of the faces.
It is not surprising then, that a painting which took such liberties with tradition, convention and realism so shocked its early public.
Interview by Stéphane Guégan about The Balcony