Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

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A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Édouard Manet

This painting was Manet’s last major work. It represents the bustling interior of one of the most prominent music halls and cabarets of Paris, the Folies-Bergère. The venue opened in 1869 and its atmosphere was described as “unmixed joy”. In contrast, the barmaid in Manet’s representation is detached and marooned behind the bar.

The Folies-Bergère was also notorious as a place to pick up prostitutes. The writer Guy de Maupassant described the barmaids as “vendors of drink and of love”.

Manet knew the place well. He made a number of preparatory sketches there but the final work was painted in his studio. He set up a bar and asked one of the barmaids, Suzon, to serve as his model.

The painting was first exhibited in 1882, at the annual fine arts exhibition in Paris, the Salon. Visitors and critics found the composition unsettling. The inaccuracy of the barmaid’s reflection, shifted too far to the right, has continued to spark much debate.

In the Making

Far from being quickly and spontaneously painted, the composition was the result of careful preparatory studies. However, that is not to say that Manet did not make changes as he painted. In an x-ray of the final canvas, we can see that Manet initially painted the barmaid with her arms crossed across her waist, her right hand clasping her left arm above the wrist. This gesture emphasised her glovelessness, but is also one of protection. The woman in the background looking through opera glasses was a late addition.

About the artist

Édouard Manet (1832-1883) came from an affluent family and wanted to become a naval officer. After failing the entrance exams, he turned to art, for which he demonstrated great talent from an early age. At eighteen, he entered the studio of Thomas Couture, the most important academic painter of the period.

Manet’s relationship with the artistic establishment in Paris was complex: he pursued challenging and subversive work and encouraged the rebellious approach of the group of slightly younger artists that would become the Impressionists. Yet, he refused to exhibit alongside them in independent exhibitions and maintained his connections with the official art world, submitting paintings to the annual exhibition of contemporary art, the Salon.

Two paintings in particular stand out in Manet’s oeuvre as disrupting the Parisian art world’s sense of tradition and standards. Submitted for display at the 1863 Salon, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) was rejected for its sketchy brushwork and the juxtaposition of a nude woman and clothed men. Olympia (also 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) was accepted at the 1865 Salon but caused a scandal for its harsh outlines, its depiction of a brazen courtesan and the overt parodying of an iconic Renaissance painting, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi, Florence).

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was Manet’s last major painting, undertaken when he was very ill and almost invalid. It was shown in the 1882 Salon and was still in his studio when Manet died in 1883. He managed to capture a fleeting sense of modern life in Paris and, at the same time, create a painting that has endured in its popularity since its creation.

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