This week, I am taking a look at Edouard Manet's A Bar at The Folies Bergere, which is in the collection of London's Courtauld Institute. It is considered Manet's last major work and remains one of his most famous. I wanted to discuss this painting this week because, as discussed below, this painting is in several ways similar to Manet's Corner of a Cafe Concert, which I discussed last week. (See article).
The painting presents a scene from a lively evening at the Folies Bergere. Manet frequented the cafes and music halls that were becoming popular in Paris in the second half of the 19th century often bringing with him a sketch pad. The Folies Bergere opened in 1869 and soon became one of the most popular of these venues. It offered operettas and pantomimes at that time. At the time of Manet's painting, the lavish, semi- nude spectaculars which are associated with the Folies Bergere were still in the future.
The painting was done in 1882. Manet did a series of preparatory sketches and then re-created a bar in his studio. The central figure is a woman named Suzon who actually worked at the Folies Bergere. X-rays reveal that at one point, Manet painted the central figure with her arms crossed, thus showing that his thinking on the composition evolved during the course of its creation.
A Bar at the Folies Bergere was exhibited at the Salon. As had occurred several times in the past, the work was controversial both as to the subject and the technique.
At that time, many of the bar maids at the Folies Bergere were known prostitutes. As with Manet's earlier Olympia, the public was uncomfortable with having a prostitute be the center of attention. Also, as seen in the reflection in the mirror, she is in conversation with a customer - - not the kind of thing that is acknowledged in polite society even today.
The criticism regarding Manet's technique mostly center upon whether he successfully portrayed the reflection in the mirror behind the central figure. Critics ever since have argued that such a reflection is optically impossible. Supporters have gone so far as to re-create and photograph the scene to show that the reflections do behave as Manet said.
To me, both criticism miss the point. Like Corner of a Cafe Concert, A Bar at the Folies Bergere is essentially a portrait - - a view into the person portrayed. The central figure is the only figure modeled in detail. All of the rest of the painting is painted much more vaguely. The man in the reflection is almost cartoon-like.
Manet draws us into her. Like the barmaid in Corner of a Cafe Concert, she is part of the scene but not part of the scene. She is lost in thought. Perhaps she is reacting to being propositioned. But perhaps she is only reacting to the tedium of yet another order for a bottle of beer. Whether she is a prostitute is irrelevant. The isolation and loneliness, whatever the cause, depicted in her face are what is important.
Whether the reflection is optically correct is also irrelevant. While the scene has the feel of a snapshot, it is not a photograph. The reflection is merely a vehicle for conveying the good times atmosphere of the music hall. It is there to provide a contrast to the emotions depicted in the central figure's face.
As in Corner of a Cafe Concert, Manet has once again created a pattern of flat rectangles to form the background for the portrait. Here, the rectangles are more broken by hints of figures and chandeliers but the concept is the same. Once again, it is a forerunner of the geometric art of the 20th century.
Another similarity to Corner of a Cafe Concert is the way the glassware is painted. As discussed last time, the large beer mug in the center of Cafe, is very simply painted. Here, the glass and the bottles on the bar are also very simple. The glass and the bowl are just a few lines of white and gray paint over the background colors.
A Bar at the Folies Bergere represents a development of the concepts that Manet used four years earlier for Corner of a Cafe Concert. Both are cafe scenes but at the center of each are individuals who are separated from their surroundings. Also, as discussed above, they employ similar artistic techniques to convey the message.
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Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.