“A Bar at the Folies-Bergere”

Edouard Manet, "Bar at Folies-Bergere" 1882. Oil on canvas.
Edouard Manet, “Bar at Folies-Bergere” 1882. Oil on canvas.

I seem to be a bit of a Francophile lately! (Next post will have to be of non-French origins!) But Edouard Manet is one of my all time favorites – specifically for his ability to render such stunning scenes of Realism with a controversial or unexpected twist. The Folies Bergere was an infamous nightclub and brothel in Bohemian Paris, and is the site of much 19th century Parisian mythology. It was said that the barmaids were ‘vendors of drink and of love’. What makes this painting so strange is the distortion of space. Some critics of the time believed it was purely an accident; that Manet was not skilled enough to render space realistically, for, this image involves a mirror and it feels like an improper use of linear perspective. What we are seeing is the reflection of this barmaid (her name was Suzon and she posed for the work in Manet’s studio) in the mirror behind her. Many like myself, however, think Manet is being quite clever here. He distorts space to drive home the isolation and indifference that is so evident on this woman’s face. In the middle of a bustling noisy packed nightclub, she is totally and utterly alone, trapped behind this fascade of sparkling champagne, absinthe and beer. Add to that the evidence Manet gives us that she is a prostitute (he often associated oranges with the dark trade), as well as the flowers in her neckline – a signal that she was available for the evening. So that leaves us to discern: are we the man in the reflection? Are we literally standing in his shoes? Or is Manet being more clever that that even? Is this actually distorted space or simply a strange unsettling perspective? According to scholar Malcolm Park (and courtesy of the Getty) the man we are seeing is actually just to the viewers left – outside of the picture plane. Maybe Manet is even more clever that we give him credit for!

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