Edouard Manet’s last major painting A Bar at the Folies Bergere is a complex and intriguing composition that avoids singular interpretations. In this article, Singulart deciphers the details of this masterpiece and discusses the life of one of the forefathers of Modernism.
Who was Edouard Manet?
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was a French modernist painter born in Paris to a wealthy family. He was expected to pursue a respectable career in law but instead followed the encouragement of his uncle and became a painter. From 1850 to 1856 he trained under the academic painter Thomas Couture and complemented his education by copying the Old Masters exhibited at the Louvre. During this time he also traveled extensively around Germany, Italy and the Netherlands and was influenced by the work of artists like Frans Hals, Diego Velazquez and Francisco Jose de Goya. His work bridges the gap between Realism and Modernism. He was inspired by the works of the realist painter Gustave Courbet in his early works but soon came to reject the conventions of painting leading to masterpieces such as Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass (both painted in 1863). Indeed, although Manet considered himself a realist, his radical style and subject matter has seen him classed as both the father of Impressionism and a pioneer of modernism. He was close friends with many of the impressionist painters during his lifetime and although his work was often ridiculed and widely mocked by contemporary critics, he was also supported by other creative minds of his time such as Emile Zola and Charles Baudelaire. Today his work holds an essential place in the history of art as the starting point of Modernism.
What’s happening in A Bar at the Folies Bergere?
A Bar at the Folies Bergere is considered to be Manet’s last major work and depicts a scene of modern life at the Folies Bergere cabaret in Paris. It is a complicated, detailed composition which reflects the complexities of modern society. Behind a bar, decorated with flowers, oranges, champagne and beer, stands a barmaid, in the center of the composition. She stares blankly out at the viewer, both arms resting on the bar, in a steady, imposing triangular form. Behind her is a mirror, which reflects the scene occurring before her in the bar: chandeliers hang and illuminate the room, where groups of Parisians watch a show, the only indication of which comes in the form of two green shoes hanging from a trapeze in the top left hand corner of the painting.
In A Bar at the Folies Bergere, Manet has created a complex and beguiling scene, which when decoded, reveals a multitude of messages describing the society of his time. Starting first with the contents of the bar, the selection of alcohol, from bottles of champagne to beer suggests the variety of social classes who attended the Folies Bergere. The beer label is also distinctly recognisable as a brand of English beer called ‘Bass Pale Ale’. Its presence in the place of German beer can be interpreted as a symbol of the atmosphere in France towards Germany in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. There is a gap in this line up of merchandise at the bar and it coincides with the position of the barmaid. As she leans on the bar, she herself becomes an object for sale, in other words, Manet reveals her identity as a prostitute, as was common for the barmaids at the Folies Bergeres at the time. This positioning, coupled with her reflection to the right, in conversation with a man, strengthens this suggestion and places the viewer in the man’s position, as her client, similarly to Manet’s technique in his earlier work, Olympia.
Further Interpretations and the Influence of Velazquez
However, the possibility for interpretation in this masterpiece does not stop there. Another look at A Bar at the Folies Bergere reveals inconsistencies, most notably in the reflection of the barmaid and her client. The perspective of Manet’s composition has long been disputed and although it was finally proven to be possible, it remains a jarring detail which ultimately serves to draw attention to the mirror and its functions. The model for the barmaid has been identified as a woman named Suzon, who worked at the Folies Bergere and who also modelled for Manet. Thus A Bar at the Folies Bergere can to some extent be considered a portrait of her and the client with whom she is conversing can be considered a self-portrait of Manet himself.
Manet was a huge fan of Velazquez’s work and to consider A Bar at the Folies Bergere in this light is also to compare it to Velazquez’s Las Meninas. In Las Meninas, Velazquez paints the portrait of the Royal Infanta and her entourage, including a portrait of himself in the process of painting this work and in a mirror on the back wall, a portrait of the King and Queen observing this moment, who are consequently assumed to take the place of the viewer. Manet has adopted this device for A Bar at the Folies Bergere, placing himself in the scene, not as an artist but as an ordinary man, and the viewer in the place of the Royal couple, as the observers and passers of judgement on the scene and subsequently on modern life.