Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, oil on canvas, 96 x 130 cm (Courtauld Gallery, London)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We are in the Courtauld Galleries looking at Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergère.”

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] This is a painting that takes place in a café-concert, a bar with entertainment, but the entertainment was a little more circus-like than we’re used to.

Dr. Harris: [0:19] You can get a sense of that in the top left corner, where we see the calves and feet of an acrobat. This was a place for middle-class entertainment that was a little grittier.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] The painting at first seems very straightforward. We seem to be looking at a woman who’s looking back at us, and there’s the entertainment just behind her, but when we look a little bit more closely you notice that what we’re seeing, in fact, is a reflection. She stands in front of a mirror.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] One of the ways I can see that most easily is by looking at the gold frame of the mirror.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] The mirror is a reminder that a canvas has for so long been seen as a way of reflecting the world in a true sense. Manet’s project is to undermine that very old conceit.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] I’m reminded that we’re looking at a Manet immediately because of the gaze of the woman in the painting, which is so forthright and so direct, but at the same time so unreadable. That reminds me of earlier paintings by Manet, like “Olympia” or the “Déjeuner sur l’herbe.”

[1:15] Unlike his Impressionist colleagues, Manet is interested in the human figure in modern life.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] And Manet, who had been such an inspiration for the Impressionists, is here also responding to the advances that they made.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] The openness of the brushwork in the chandelier might remind us of Renoir’s painting of the “Moulin de la Galette,” for example.

Dr. Zucker: [1:35] At the extreme right, we see the reflection of the back of the woman that we’re facing, but we also see that she’s facing a male figure who wears a top hat, clearly a patron of this café-concert.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] He seems to be close to her, as though he’s engaged in conversation or asking for a drink.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] And so that must be us. At the same time, it can’t be us because we’re looking directly at her and the reflection is off at the side. Clearly, there is some willful distortion on the part of the artist.

Dr. Harris: [2:01] We know that there is willful distortion because we also have sketches that Manet made that we can compare it to.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] Manet is deliberately transforming his initial sketch in such a way as to upend our expectations of what this painting should be showing us.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] This was in the salon of 1882, and people who went to the salon had expectations of paintings. One of those expectations was that you could read the painting. It was legible. You could understand your relationship as the viewer to the figures in the painting, and the relationship of the figures to one another. Manet is confounding both of those.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] Which itself can be read as an aspect of modernity. This is all taking place within a new urban context, a new Paris that had recently been reconstructed, where people of different classes come into contact with each other.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] In the modern world, we tend to want to categorize people. It helps us to sort out the world that we live in when we’re in an urban environment. Manet is insistently refusing to give us a type of person that we can categorize with certainty.

[3:01] There was already an uncertainty and a danger around women in the city. A woman at a bar would have been understood as being somewhat sexually available.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] If she was alone, and certainly if she was working there. When we take on the physical manifestation of the man with the top hat, and we look directly at her, we put ourselves in the position of the patron in this bar. The question of her availability to us is put front and center.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] Is she flirting with us? Is she keeping a distant reserve?

Dr. Zucker: [3:34] Manet has placed her firmly on the other side of a marble slab that seems impenetrable.

Dr. Harris: [3:39] Yet, if we look at the reflection, there is a closeness there that seems very at odds with the distance that we feel in front of the painting.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] The marble bar that separates us from this woman has almost vanished in the reflection at the extreme right.

Dr. Harris: [3:53] She’s unavailable to us in that sensual way, but the bottles, and the fruit, and the glasses — they’re painted in an incredibly sensual way.

Dr. Zucker: [4:02] Manet is denying us a closeness that we see in the reflection behind us all across the café, where we see couples mingling.

Dr. Harris: [4:10] It makes us uncomfortable. What is our relationship? What will this interaction be like when we approach her and ask for a drink?

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] Look at her eyes. They seem to be at odds with the representation of the mouth. The mouth seems to have a little bit of a sneer to it, where the eyes feel sadder.

Dr. Harris: [4:25] In the sketch, she stands with her hands clasped in front of her torso. In the final painting, Manet made her lean forward slightly by placing her hands on that bar. Although that makes us expect her to be a little bit closer to us, there still seems to be a distance in her torso. Again, that tension between distance and closeness.

Dr. Zucker: [4:46] Manet shows his virtuosity, not only in the face but also in the two blossoms right before us or, for instance, in the cut glass, which has the fruit.

Dr. Harris: [4:55] Manet, as usual, is drawing our attention to the fact that this is paint on a canvas, an image which is flat. He’s denying that desire for an illusion of reality that was also such an important expectation of the salon-goer.

[5:10] There are some passages, especially in the reflection, where all we’re seeing is touches of blacks and grays and browns and beiges, a quick, loose handling of paint, that is a metaphor for the dynamism and the sense of movement and energy in the new modern city of Paris.

[5:27] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," in Smarthistory, October 1, 2017, accessed June 10, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/edouard-manet-a-bar-at-the-folies-bergere/.