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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Édouard Manet; Bar at the Folies-Bergère – 1881-2

London, Courtauld Institute of Art

The Folies-Bergère was the largest, and one of the most fashionable places of entertainment in Paris. Reflected in the mirror of Manet’s painting, behind the barmaid, one can see part of the cavernous interior —­­ the chink of glasses, the music of a band and the roar of hundreds of conversations are almost audible; in the top left corner of the composition one can make out the feet of a trapeze artist perhaps about to swing our way. Arrayed in front of the dame du comptoir, on the marble topped bar is a beautifully painted still life — wine and beer bottles, Green Chartreuse, some oranges in a crystal dish and cut flowers in a glass — the last two splendidly offset against the black of her dress.

But the focus of the picture is the cashier herself, occupying her station behind one of the bars. Her gaze is unfocused and wistful. She seems to be somewhat detached, cocooned against the noisy sociability which surrounds her; she does not invite the attention of the next customer but will wearily fulfil her duties when asked. The Folies-Bergère was a venue at which fashionable society and the demi-monde mixed. Prostitutes thronged its public spaces and in such a milieu the status of the barmaid was often uncertain. It is possible that Manet is hinting at this potential availability, or at least to a certain ambivalence in his portrayal of this young woman (one of the real barmaids from the Folies-Bergère) surrounded as she is by other merchandise displayed at her counter.

The reflected images in the mirror are decidedly problematical and have triggered much comment. The barmaid is centrally placed and the reflection of the marble bar is parallel to the picture plane (meaning that the mirror is also parallel to the picture plane and that we are viewing the composition from a central vantage point). From this viewpoint the woman should in fact obscure her own reflection. But Manet has displaced her reflected image considerably to the right in a way that is consistent with the mirror being placed at an angle. Other anomalies are apparent. The placement of the bottles in the mirror is slightly different from that on the bar. Furthermore, the barmaid’s reflection seems to show her in a different light from the woman facing us. She is not absorbed in her detached reverie but is leaning forward solicitously and engaging her customer who stands directly across the counter. This customer, who occupies the space between her and the corner of the picture, is far too near to the barmaid in the reflection. His reflected proximity would logically place him between us, the spectator and the bar. But there is perhaps a reason for his absence. Even though the barmaid is not engaging us directly as does Manet’s favourite model Victorine in Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, she nevertheless gazes out of the picture into the space occupied by the viewer and by her next customer, and it seems that Manet may indeed wish to conflate the two in our minds — the viewer is the next customer and may be identified with the rather sketchily drawn gentleman.

All this compositional uncertainty leads us to believe that Manet is here challenging the accepted norms of representation and is deliberately provoking us to question pictorial reality. Indeed X-ray investigations reveal that Manet accentuated these anomalies as he worked on the painting, which was his last great work. It was accepted by the Salon in 1882 but a year later he was dead, probably as a result of gangrene brought about by syphilis.

Image: Courtauld Institute Gallery

Contemporary Works

1881 Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: The Poor Fisherman, Paris, Musée d’Orsay

1882 Max Liebermann: Bleaching Linen on the Grass, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

1884 Georges Seurat: Bathers at Asnières, London, National Gallery

Further Paintings of Interest


Claude Monet

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

John Singer Sargent

In a Café (Absinthe)

Edgar Degas