A Bar at the Folies-Bergère: Édouard Manet

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère: Édouard Manet

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) is one of the most famous Impressionist paintings, a symbol of Édouard Manet, and is widely considered to be his final masterpiece. Its French name is Un bar aux Folies Bergère and the picture can be found in the Courtauld Gallery in London, United Kingdom.

Summary

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère depicts a highly realistic scene at the counter of a bar in a music hall in Paris called Folies-Bergère, where Manet was a regular. It presents a blond barmaid at the center standing behind a marble counter, on which bottles of recognizable beverages are placed on the sides of the surface.

At the barmaid’s back a giant glass reflects the scene behind the painter’s, and our, perspective, showing the people in the upper tier of the concert hall, the legs of a trapeze artist in the upper-right corner, and the smoky exhalations from the audience below.

Also reflected in the glass, at a level close to that of the painter’s perspective, we see a man whose peculiar positioning with respect to the barmaid in the mirror has been explained by contemporary critics as impossible, due to the two of them standing at significantly different distances, and not face to face, as might initially appear.

Analysis of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is an Impressionist masterpiece — from an artist who maintained a self-conscious distance from the Impressionist circle — because of its exquisite rendition of shape, shadow, reflection, perspective, and detail through the highly demanding technique of fleeting brushstrokes intended to transmit the experience of a single, highly concentrated, impression.

In this extract from what was for Manet’s ordinary, fashionable life, the artist has accomplished an exceedingly realistic series of reflections upon glass and marble which the Impressionist technique found naturally troubling.

It should be noted that besides the reflections on glass, Manet has been able to depict the reflection of the glass in glass, as we realize when we note the bottles from the counter reflected behind the barmaid and appropriately adjusted in color and shape to allow for the inclination of the reflective surface and the painter’s peculiar off-center vantage point. The entire composition has been impeccably imagined and arranged with the spectator’s, i.e. the painter’s, presence elided.

Still Life

The oranges on the counter, flowers in the barmaid’s dress, and the vase — still life is used in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a common trait of Manet’s art.

The Barmaid

Biographers have surmised correctly that the barmaid, an employee of the Folies-Bergère called Suzon, must have also been a prostitute because of the presence of oranges, a symbol of prostitution in Manet’s iconographic repertoire. The bouquet at her chest, in the midst of a very low neckline, carries an additional and clearer erotic suggestion.

Suzon the barmaid is the protagonist in this scene, vying with the glass behind her for the attention of her clients. Her vaguely perplexed or melancholic expression, as well as the air of uncertainty with which she plays at hostess behind the counter, are clearly intended to fascinate us and make us wonder what she is thinking. The ruddiness of her face, eye-catching due to the natural pallor of the rest of her complexion, makes us think she may be embarrassed as well as possibly sad.

The Mirror

Yet the Bar at the Folies-Bergère is more famous for its captivating mirror background than for the emotionally complex barmaid at its center. The mirror accomplished by Manet allows us to see an entire scene external to our field of vision and wholly situated behind us. We observe fashionable Parisians as they spectate at a show, chatting, laughing, and smoking within a remarkably lively interior. The dynamism of the commotion in the back confers additional significance to the relative poise of what we see around the counter.

Manet’s mirror stands in a significant tradition in Western art of mirrors inside a scene giving a vision of people situated outside it. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) would have been familiar to Manet. He may have also been influenced by The Absinthe Drinker (1876) of fellow Impressionist Edgar Degas.

The Perspective

There has been a long discussion among critics, beginning with Michel Foucault in The Order of Things (1966), on whether the perspective implied in Manet’s mirror is quite correct and whether it constitutes an additional complexity for interpreters. A study conducted by Malcolm Park in 2001 has purportedly proven, by reconstructing the scene itself, that Manet’s mirror is picture-perfect, and that the implied perspective is slight to the right of the natural center.

The Bottles at the Bar

The bottles of alcoholic drinks arranged on the counter in x are identifiable as contemporary brands, foreign and French. They have been read as indicating the cosmopolitan culture of the Folies-Bergère and its patrons. The absence of German brands has been studied as possibly related to anti-German hostility after the war (and French defeat) of 1870-71.

Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet passed away in 1883, a year after A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was displayed at the Salon, having suffered a final disappointment in the public’s lukewarm reception of a painting that he considered his artistic testament.

His final years were, nonetheless, a period of public appreciation for his work. This is the time when his admirer, Antonin Proust, having become the Minister of the Beaux-Arts, helped to have him decorated with the Legion of Honour for artistic merit.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was completed by Manet during a time of great physical debility and pain due to a protracted illness caused by syphilis. Proust, Émile Zola, Claude Monet, and other lights of the intellectual and artistic scene in France attended his funeral.

This painting was one of many famous paintings by Édouard Manet, with others including The Luncheon on the Grass (1863), Olympia (1863), Music in the Tuileries (1862) and The Railway (1873).

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