Manet’s Reality


The lifestyle of the emerging nineteenth century upper middle class, particularly the male flaneur, would come to characterize the modern world. Impressionist artists, such as Edouard Manet, capitalized on this new way of life that revolved around leisure and entertainment. In his last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet represents a scene from this new aspect of life[1]. This painting does not focus on the social setting that is represented, but rather serves as a psychological insight into the way Manet perceived his world, that of the bourgeois male, and also served as a visual testament of his approach to painting. His style and intent are evident in the construction of space within the painting, the relationship between the painting and the viewer, and Manet’s departure from and critique of the traditional ways of making and looking at art.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère exemplifies Manet’s interest in depicting leisure and spectacle but also the working class. However, his choice to represent the gritty realism of modern life is better understood after considering the context that would have informed this choice. Working in the mid-nineteenth century, just before Impressionism started, Gustave Courbet advocated painting from one’s own time period and point of view[2]. Unlike the more traditional art of the Salon that looked to the past and dwelled on historical or mythological subject matter, Courbet famously chose to show more realistic and contemporary subjects, focusing on the working class as seen in The Stone Breakers (1849-50). He believed a more subjective approach would add to a work’s authenticity[3]. This subjectivity of production would later inspire the Impressionists, like Manet, who saw this as a sign of modernity. The critic Charles Baudelaire also advocated this approach and envisaged the “painter of modern life” as someone who looks at his or her current time period[4]. This modernity that Baudelaire upholds originates from the newly renovated city of Paris. Between 1853 and 1870, Parisians saw the demolition of older parts of the city to make room for wider streets, public parks, bazaars for shopping, and a variety of areas for entertainment[5]. These features catered towards the new bourgeois class, and drew in Impressionists who, like Courbet, were concerned with expressing this transitory stage.

At first glance, the subject of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère appears to be a simple portrait of a modern, working class woman. She looks out at the viewer with a solemn expression on her face from behind a bar, surrounded by a multitude of bottles. The woman is centrally placed and her direct outward gaze invites the viewer into the painting. Elements such as the use of horizontal lines, the highlighting effects of the light, and Manet’s stylistic brushstrokes focus the viewer’s attention on the barmaid and prove this painting to be a truly modern composition. The viewer is confronted as if they have approached the bar. The barmaid is seen from the waist up, cut off by the countertop of the bar, which is also reflected behind her in the mirror. The horizontal lines are echoed again in the area beyond the bar where a woman in a white dress and yellow gloves is seated at the left. By dividing the space represented, Manet has isolated the barmaid. She is cut off from the rest of the crowd by the horizontal lines that define features of the bar. The barmaid is further isolated by the use of light. Her fair skin tone is highlighted by a bright light coming from some unseen light source at the left of the canvas. The light is oversaturated, leaving little shadow to sculpt out her facial features. The man at the far right of the painting contrasts this use of light. In comparison to the woman he is depicted in darker shades, and is cast almost completely in shadow. In further contrast to the barmaid, the man is handled in looser brushstrokes. This can also be seen in the background crowd. Behind the barmaid the crowd becomes less defined as they get farther away. This gives the painting a sense of space, but the loose brushstrokes also flatten it out because it is not defined. The difference in the handling of paint throughout the composition also delineates the woman’s role as the focal point of the composition. The combined effect of line, light, and style not only isolates the barmaid, but also gives her authority in the composition. Manet uses these formal techniques to continually draw the viewer’s attention back to this working class woman, calling into question her overall role and importance in this society.

The importance of the barmaid is seen in the formal characteristics of the painting and is reiterated in a second representation of her. A mirror is placed directly behind the barmaid, signified by the bottom of the frame just above the counter. The barmaid faces the viewer. If Manet had represented the reflection realistically, the reflection of the woman and the male figure would not be able to be seen, and perhaps the presence of the mirror would go unnoticed. In an article on how A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is constructed, authors Thierry de Duve and Brian Holmes argue that the oblique angle of the reflection is intentional because Manet places visual clues that suggest deliberate inconsistencies in the optics within the painting[6]. For instance, if the bottles to the left of the barmaid are lined up with a vanishing point, and the same is done for their reflections, they correspond to multiple vanishing points.

Manet deliberately rejects the formal use of perspective, or at least a consistency in perspective that an informed viewer would expect[7]. The space constructed in the mirror complicates a clear reading of the painting. However, this could be interpreted as Manet’s attitude towards modern life. Many new elements were added to the city during the modernization of Paris that focused attention on entertainment, turning the city, as well as society into a spectacle[8]. The Folies-Bergère was a popular venue in the nineteenth century featuring a variety of entertainment including ballet, circus acts, and many other attractions. Seen in the top left corner of the painting are the legs of a trapeze artist, suggesting this function for the space. Manet’s painting not only brings into question relationships in space, but also relationships in general[9]. The viewpoint of the barmaid isolates her but also identifies her with this space. She is not directly a part of the attraction, but she is a part of the spectacle.

Additionally, her relationship to the man seen in the mirror is not quite clear. This man exemplifies a common figure type in eighteenth century France. Charles Baudelaire saw the flâneur as a figure that embodied the new bourgeois class, characterized by freedom and financial independence[10]. A combination of anonymity and intimacy characterized the flâneur’s role in society[11]. He was free to stroll through the boulevards of Paris to observe the city up close. But he was also able to maintain his anonymity in the crowded streets. Manet captures these qualities of the flâneur and disregards his conventional authority by marginalizing him as a shadowy figure at the edge of the painting. He becomes a type rather than an individual. The viewer might identify with the flâneur since Manet places his reflection within the painting to coincide with the position of the viewer outside of the painting. However, his secondary status to the barmaid, the subject of his gaze, and since his presence, indicated only by his reflection, creates a juxtaposition of the gaze and the subject[12]. His gaze becomes the subject of the viewer’s gaze.

The oblique angle of the barmaid’s reflection can be attributed to the artist’s intention rather than lack of skill. But the reflection creates a problem for interpretation. It is unclear as to how the painting should be read. The viewer is first drawn into the painting by the barmaid, but then identifies with the man on the right. In his article on Manet, Daniel Herwitz looks at the British philosopher Richard Wollheim’s interpretation of the viewer’s role and relationship with A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Wollheim argues that once the viewer has been invited in, they identify not with the marginalized flâneur, but with an “unrepresented spectator”[13]. For Wollheim, this solves this issue of a uniform reading of the painting among all viewers. However, as Herwitz points out, this idealizes the role of the spectator[14]. This also does not account for the spectator represented in the picture as the flâneur in the mirror. Manet does not seem to be inviting the viewer to look. He maintains his authority over the situation, rendering his impression of a glimpse into the life of the bar. The figures in the painting are internally self-absorbed. They have retreated into a state of absence or dreaminess, which is reflected in the loose handling of paint. The barmaid’s gaze does not meet the viewer’s or the expected position of the flâneur. And unlike more traditional subjects, she does not appear to be engaged with someone or something unseen outside of the picture frame[15]. By allowing the main figure to remain at a distance, unattainable in her absence, Manet focuses on reverie. Therefore A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is Manet’s invitation into his own dreams and fantasies[16].

The reverie in Manet;s painting is reflected by his handling of paint and spatial effects while also demonstrating his deliberate rejection of conventions for both making and looking at art. His painterly style and use of patches of tone and color are characteristic of the more general Impressionist style. Objects are defined by simple broad brushstrokes, much like those found in other Impressionist work such as Claude Monet’s Grainstack series or Berthe Morisot’s Hide and Seek. Loose brushstrokes characterize much of Manet’s earlier works, such as The Absinthe Drinker, which also shows his predilection for depicting the lower or working classes, challenging what was considered suitable subject matter[17]. In this painting it becomes clearly evident that Manet intentionally leaves parts unaccomplished because they are contrasted by meticulously rendered parts. As Seymour Howard points out in his article on Manet’s “artful errors,” the left leg is un-modeled and out of place while the head has been mimetically rendered[18]. And, as exemplified by A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet consistently renders space erroneously or leaves space unarticulated[19]. To compare to another early work, Luncheon on the Grass, the sizes of the figures in the foreground and background do not correspond to a naturalistic perspective, much like how the barmaid’s reflection does not match a frontal viewpoint of her. Consequently, the unaccomplished rendering and incongruous spatial effects in Manet’s paintings can be interpreted as intentional. Manet consistently utilizes these non-traditional qualities to oppose the publically held supposition that painting is a window onto nature[20]. These effects make Manet’s paintings seem flat, and serve to provide an impression of an experience, recalling a memory, rather than serving as a mimetic window onto an actual event. This also shows Manet’s presumed attentions to mock these public assumptions. As in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the viewer is not able to fully understand what is going on in the scene; the barmaid’s reflection clearly exhibits this unattainable aspect of the subject matter. Manet denies a viewing of the art as a form of possessing the object[21]. Even the gaze of the flâneur within the painting has been displaced as the gaze before the subject.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère serves as a summation of Manet’s personal style, characterized by spatial discrepancies and a mocking of viewer’s expectations for their relationship to a painting. Manet constantly challenges tradition by depicting the realities of the modern world. He chose the working class as his main subject matter to show the unease in society resulting from the rise of the working class due to capitalism. As seen in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet achieves this by subjectively showing social unease through his style that epitomizes the beginnings of Impressionism.

Me visiting Manet’s painting at the Courtauld Gallery in London

[1] James H. Rubin, Impressionism (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2010), 84-85.

[2] Rubin, Impressionism, 39.

[3] Rubin, Impressionism, 39.

[4] Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Francis Frascina et al. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982), 23.

[5] Mark Girouard, “Paris and the Boulevards,” in Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 285-286.

[6] Thierry de Duve and Brian Holmes, “How Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ Is Constructed,” Critical Inquiry 25 (1998): 146.

[7] De Duve, “How Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ Is Constructed,” 141-142.

[8] Girouard, “Paris and the Boulevards,” 296.

[9] David Carrier, “Art History in the Mirror Stage: Interpreting un Bar aux Folies Bergères,” History and Theory 29 (1990): 302.

[10] Rubin, Impressionism, 29.

[11] Rubin, Impressionism, 29.

[12] Carrier, “Art History in the Mirror Stage: Interpreting un Bar aux Folies Bergères,” 310.

[13] Daniel Herwitz, “The Work of Art as Psychoanalytical Object: Wollheim on Manet,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49 (1991): 144.

[14] Herwitz, “The Work of Art as Psychoanalytical Object: Wollheim on Manet,” 145.

[15] Herwitz, “The Work of Art as Psychoanalytical Object: Wollheim on Manet,” 145.

[16] Herwitz, “The Work of Art as Psychoanalytical Objects: Wollheim on Manet,” 144.

[17] Rubin, Impressionism, 53.

[18] Seymour Howard, “ Early Manet and Artful Error: Foundations of Anti-Illusion in Modern Painting,” Art Journal 37 (1977): 14.

[19] Howard, “ Early Manet and Artful Error: Foundations of Anti-Illusion in Modern Painting,” 14.

[20] Howard, “ Early Manet and Artful Error: Foundations of Anti-Illusion in Modern Painting,” 16.

[21] Herwitz, “The Work of Art as Psychoanalytical Objects: Wollheim on Manet,” 146.

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