An Analysis of The Bar at the Folies-Bergere

By: Ariel Dean

Analysis of The Bar at the Folies-Bergere

The Bar at the
by Edouard Manet is one of his most well-known works (Fig.1). It stands
out from his other great works in part because of its puzzling story. This
painting forces the viewer to ask questions and not just passively view and
admire itself. While this painting is simply impressive all-around, the most
intriguing and thought-provoking aspect of the work is Manet’s usage of the
direct view and the view in the mirror to tell the same story from two
perspectives—that of the man to the far right in the image and that of the
painted reality of the barmaid. By doing this, he properly draws attention to
all the emotion of the story and makes a statement on the objectification and
commodification of women. 

To properly appreciate the
significance and beauty of this painting, one must first look to Manet himself
and his position in the art world. Born into a wealthy family, Edouard Manet
was not by any means the average artist of his time. After joining and failing the
navy early on, he moved to Paris to begin his life as an artist. Manet began as
an artist later than his peers in life, and even early on he stood out because
his subject matter was notably different. The primary difference was that he
depicted women as the primary subject matter of his work. This difference only
increased as he became an established artist and as his paintings became well
known. His art would later symbolize dramatic changes in European art. Manet's
paintings are significant as they do not fit snugly into the realms of realism
or impressionism, but rather they signify a transition between those movements.
His works had great impacts on European art, as he often portrayed regular working
people. Before this, the art world had been dominated by scenes of
larger-than-life figures doing great things. Manet's works reflect a sense of
celebration of the experience and life of the plebeian as he portrayed it at
the same scale and with the same care as great historical figures had been
portrayed. It was partially because of this that Manet's art was controversial
at the time it was first created. His work also upset many people because of
his untraditional portrayal of women. His paintings of women were different
from others of the time in many ways, he often showed women directly facing the
viewer. This is visible in works such as The Railway, where the subject
of the painting is seemingly making eye contact with the viewer (Fig. 2). This
was an uncomfortable experience for viewers of the time as it broke down the
barrier between the painting and reality. Manet’s paintings of naked women was
controversial in the art community with his. Now, naked people were not
something new to European art at the time, but what made his works
controversial is that he depicted, once again, normal women, not
goddesses, not biblical figures, but real, working, living women. This appears
maybe most famously in his works Le Bain and Olympia (Fig. 3 and
4 respectively). In both of these works, Manet depicts everyday women who are
confident in their exposure and position. Olympia was an especially
upsetting work to the public as it clearly and proudly portrays a sex worker as
the subject. As Manet got older and his health sharply declined in the late
1870s and into the early 1880s, he continued to create beautiful paintings, one
of which is the very focus of this essay: A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.
This painting is considered by some as his last great work, seeing as he died
about a year after finishing it. 

A good way to begin analyzing
this complex painting is to figure out the basic setting. This painting
portrays a barmaid standing behind her bar before a packed and bustling room of
people. One can see that on the bar is a colorful selection of drinks. As
labeled in the title, this is the Folies-Bergere music hall. The Folies-Bergere
was one of the most popular places for music and entertainment in Paris at the
time. Manet and his friends were among the many enjoyers of the beautiful
theater. In the specific scene of the painting, the audience is watching a
trapeze performance, as indicated by the legs dangling down in the top left
corner. It is important to also notice that all of the background that the
viewer can see is the reflection on a mirror behind the barmaid. Featured in
this reflection is a man in the top right corner appearing to be conversing
with the barmaid. It is unclear exactly what is happening in the conversation.
However, it is important to also know that, at this time, the Folies-Bergere
was known to be frequented by sex workers doing business and the barmaids had
side jobs in sex work. With this context, it is apparent that the barmaid in
this painting is also a sex worker, with the man in the corner being someone
possibly seeking out her services. This fact, along with the lack of clarity
concerning her interaction with the man in the corner made this painting no
different from others of Manet as it was controversial and upsetting to the
public. This busy and confusing scene leaves much work for the viewer to
interpret it all, and a key part of doing just that is to look at the direct
view and compare it to what is seen in the mirror. 

The direct view in this
painting is representative of what the man in the corner sees. One can tell
this because the way he is positioned in the mirror would suggest that he is
directly in front of the barmaid, as the direct view shows. His perspective is solely
focused on this woman. She is made up of smaller, more specific, and less
visible brushstrokes. Behind her, background scene is made up of larger and
more visible brushstrokes that create loose individual images of people. These
brushstrokes give the illusion of movement and chaos. Conversely, the more
specific brushstrokes that make up the barmaid give her a sense of stillness or
being stuck in time. This effect shows how the man is completely focused on
her, despite the numerous distractions in the background. To move away from the
comparison with the background, this man sees a pretty woman placed amidst rather
colorful and enticing selection of drinks. Before him, this woman starts to
blend in with the items for sale. The way that Manet outlines the curves of her
body matches the way he outlines the bottles that surround her. The flower on
her further connects her to the selection on the bar as they mimic the flowers
in the vase. The red corsage held in her cleavage also imitates the red
triangular logo of the Bass pale ale to either side of her. From his view, her
person and services are on sale just as the drinks are. In fact, she is nothing
more than a cheap, off-brand replica of her commodity counterparts. But, unlike the drinks, the
heavy marble counter separates her from the man, putting her just out of reach.
This separation makes her more alluring in his eyes. She is even leaning into
the bar with her hands, as if trying to get closer to the conversation. From
the man’s perspective, he believes that she wants to talk to him, and that she
is trying to overcome the seperation between them. His perspective reveals the
objectifying nature of her outfit as well, with the contrast between the deep
black coat and the almost transparent, white lace drawing attention to her
body. The coat specifically accentuates the slimming of her waist down from her
wide chest and hips. The lace frames her chest area. It gives her a sense of
daintiness like that of a doll or toy, making it seem as though this barmaid is
on display. She has no stains or marks on her body or clothes, making it seem
like she has not even been working, she is just there for him and what he wants,
as if she does not have a job to do. Probably the most troubling part of this
man's perspective of her is her face. She has a sunken, almost teary look in
her eyes, revealing the utter exhaustion and sadness she may feel. This little
showing of emotion is the most human part of her appearance to this man. It is
troubling as the man is looking so directly at the obvious sadness of this
woman, yet he continues his transaction with her. Her little bit of humanity peeking
through the objectified view of her is not enough to resonate with the man. To
him, she is still just a commodity for his consumption. 

Now this perspective of
the man placed directly before the viewer is in direct contrast with the scene
in the mirror. Thereby, juxtaposing the “reality” this man has imagined with
the actuality of his surroundings. Since the background is actually only
visible in the mirror, it is once again important to look at the background for
context. The great hustle and bustle shown by those rushed brushstrokes places
the interaction in a very small part of the bar’s evening service. Between the
movement of the huge crowd and the distraction of the trapeze act, this little
interaction between the man and the barmaid is insignificant. This is further
indicated by the looseness of the brushstrokes defining the interaction as seen
in the mirror. This allows it to blend in more with the background. Another
possibly harsh truth revealed by this mirror view is that the man with the barmaid
has lookalikes all throughout the dense crowd. In fact, there seems to be an
almost exact replica of this man sitting next to the woman on the balcony with
the yellow gloves. Farther back, one can see a smattering of top hats
throughout the crowd, drawing a connection to the man in the mirror's biggest
defining characteristic. This repetition of his image all through the theater
indicates that this man is not special in the slightest, and that his
interaction with the barmaid is not unique. The poor woman has probably already
had to interact with people just like him earlier in the night and will
continue to have to serve many more. While he gets the front and center
perspective of the painting, this man is nothing special to the barmaid, though
her image in his mind is quite the opposite. Moving from the man to the barmaid
herself, there are changes to her figure and position as shown in the direct
view. In the mirror, her coat appears to have more smudges and it is not
outlined as clearly. This indicates that she is, in fact, working and not just
there to serve this one man as his perspective would indicate. Additionally,
she appears to be bigger in the mirror, no longer presenting the idealized
female form but the actual female form. One can also tell that her idealized
body in the direct view is just the male gaze of the man, as Manet does not
usually portray women in that way. Even the nude subject of Olympia and Le
is depicted women more realistically, with slightly more body fat and without
oversexualized features. Returning to the bar, in the mirror the barmaid appears
to have messier hair, once again showing that she is a real woman with a real
body. Her position in the mirror is also slightly different from the direct
view. Her bent arms make it seem like she almost seems to be leaning away from
the man, using the bar to push herself away . In the mirror, the bar also seems
to disappear, taking with it the barrier between them. Both details indicate
that the barmaid is uncomfortable with this man. She is forced to be closer to
him so that she can do her job and what she needs to do to support herself, but
she is trying to desperately and subtly give herself space. This detail is
accentuated in Manet's sketch of this very same painting as the bar is gone
completely and the barmaid seems to be putting proper distance between herself
and this man. 

In conclusion, Manet's The
Bar at the Folies-Bergere 
tells an intricate story of two perspectives within
a single scene. His genius usage of the mirror to depict reality almost as a
shadow of this one man's perspective forces the viewer to think deeply and
struggle with the true meaning behind this interaction. On the one hand there
is a man seeking out pleasures in the form of alcohol and sexual services, and
on the other there is a tired, sad, and uncomfortable woman simply trying to
get by.  The setting of this meaningful
interaction in a busy theater enhances the impact of the story as just a small
part of daily life. It is because of this that The Bar at the Folies-Bergere
is such a beautiful and moving work of art. 


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