Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère


I’m going to talk today about Manet’s last great work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It’s a painting that relates closely to Manet’s own experiences of Paris. During the 1860s, when Manet was just starting his career, Baron Haussmann knocked down much of medieval Paris and built the big boulevards, parks and theatres that we associate with Paris today. For Manet, the Folies-Bergère represented the type of new entertainment venue that he would have visited. He was part of an increasingly wealthy and growing middle class who had leisure time and money to spend. We can tell that this is the most expensive of a kind of venue known as the café-concert partly because of the chandeliers and the decor, but also because of the items on sale, such as the champagne, the clementines. We’ve also got some Basque beer, which represents, perhaps the international audience that came to the bar. We can see the type of entertainment they would have perhaps watched. There are just some little acrobat’s feet cropped off in the corner. When the painting was first exhibited in 1882 it would have appeared a very modern image. Critics were most confused and surprised, perhaps, by the barmaid’s expression. They couldn’t agree exactly on what emotion she was showing. Or, indeed, if there was any emotion there at all. One critic described her as bored and sulky, another described her as looking like a cardboard cutout from a shop window. Whatever her expression may be, she is certainly very detached from her lively surroundings. The famous art historian T. J. Clark described her as the face of fashion. He described her immaculate hair and make-up as a sort of disguise, a mask, a way of coping with the modern world. The composition was also quite surprising to 19th century viewers. We know the scene represents a mirror in the background, from the smudges on the glass, also from the gold frame that runs along the bottom. But if we look at the angle of the barmaid it’s not quite as we would expect in the reflection. There’s also quite a shadowy figure, of a gentleman in the reflection who’s not in the foreground. One simple explanation may be that it just makes the composition more interesting, it adds more movement and action. Also, by changing the angles, Manet opened up the possible meanings and narratives for this painting. Apart from the composition, the technique also represented a significant break with convention. Manet has varied his brushwork throughout the canvas, to draw our attention to different areas of the painting. The size of the work would also have added to 19th century viewers’ confusion. They may have assumed that a woman on this scale in quite a calm, symmetrical and grand, almost, pose would be someone important, but actually, she’s just a humble barmaid – they wouldn’t even have known her name. The fact that she’s working in a bar, particularly the Folies-Bergère, may have led some people to assume that she could also be a prostitute. We now know that the barmaid was a lady called Suzon, who did actually work at the Folies-Bergère. Her tired reflection could perhaps be the result of a long days work, a long shift at the bar. It could also perhaps have resulted from sitting for long and tedious sessions with Manet. We know that he worked quite slowly. He produced sketches of the painting actually within the bar but then worked them up later in his studio. Manet was very ill when he painted this work, in fact he was mortally ill. Some people believe that this could be Manet summarising his own personal world – his own experiences of Paris. People have even suggested that the sketchy figure of the gentleman could represent Manet himself. It’s quite possible that the whole painting represents a sort of farewell to the world that he loved so much.

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