Updated: Nov 8, 2020
To start my 'Art Soup' journal and blog I thought I would share an article that I wrote for an arts course with Oxford University some years ago. I hope you find it interesting and informative. You are very welcome to share.
Painted in 1882, Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies Bergere’ represents the culmination of a relatively short but dynamic and pioneering life as one of Frances most celebrated artists.
Never shy of courting controversy, Manet’s paintings of everyday life constantly confounded and surprised the salon and public alike with his distinctive ‘direct’ style of impressionist painting. Whilst he never actually exhibited with the impressionists, he was clearly supportive of their endeavours.
Second perhaps only to ‘Olympia’, ‘A Bar at the Folies Bergere’ is arguably Manet’s greatest work, the legacy of which continues to perplex and challenge art historians even today. On initial viewing, everything about the painting appears entirely conventional and ‘correct’ but this is sheer seduction. It becomes quickly apparent that the world into which we are looking is pure illusion. The most striking example of this is the ambiguity of its mirrored perspective. Throughout its composition, Manet has employed multiple viewpoint perspectives that achieve an absolute distortion of the visual truth.
Closer examination of the painting however, reveals a great deal more about the man himself and that of 19th Century Parisian life. Does this painting convey some message of social morality? Certainly it can be interpreted this way, but there also appear to be many elements of private humour and personal affections.
The main lines of direction are readily identifiable. In the illustration below, the horizontal (red) and vertical lines (blue) illustrate the main lines of direction. These serve the composition well by robustly supporting and framing the disparate foreground components without competing with them.
However, it is truly surprising to discover the level of sophistication regarding the geometry of its diagonal planes. The overall composition from background to foreground is connected by a strong forward projecting pyramidal shape. This is then anchored and connected into three equi-spaced vertical planes, which as a symmetrical pattern sits over the asymmetry of the background and pictorial organisation.
The first thing to note is the three equi-spaced vertical lines of organisation (RED).
The bottom left hand diagonal line (L to R yellow) follows the line of the base of the champagne bottles and terminates at the base of the central vertical axis. The bottom right hand diagonal (an exact mirror of the Left diagonal) follows the line of the bases of both vases.
The top left hand diagonal line (L to R in pink) follows the line of the main chandelier and onto the choker terminating at the barmaids throat (intersecting the central vertical axis). Its opposite version (R to L in pink) finds the exact centre of the smaller chandelier positioned above the barmaid’s reflection, the vertical line of which drops down her spine and into the vertical axis of the bottle of crème de menthe.
The two longest diagonals of the pyramidal structure (Yellow) lend full weight to the three dimensionality of the painting. The left hand side following the vanishing point plane of the reflected marble counter top. This single element of linear perspective combined with the smoke polluted aerial perspective engenders a strong sense of spatial three dimensionality. There are additional diagonals that reinforce this effect.
The painting is largely created from hues that are biased towards the cooler end of the spectrum. The colours are predominantly blue-blacks, cool blue-purples, russets, colourful (mixed) greys, yellows and muted reds. The colour scheme is dominated by the blue black dress of the barmaid. The gold highlights found in her hair are also used elsewhere as is the soft green of her corsage.
Disintegration of form is evident in the background which is loosely handled, vague but expressive. The forground elements however are sharply defined. By repeating the colours throughout the painting, Manet has managed to bind all of the disparate elements into a cohesive whole achieving a high degree of colour harmony.
Suzon’s skin tones are soft and chalky except for the blush of her cheeks and dusky red of her lips. The lightest part of the painting is the white disk of light to the right of her face. This together with her blouse and arms, are the lightest tones in the painting. The darkest being the velvety blue-black of the jacket, the black choker and the hat of the male figure. These rich deep tones accentuate the porcelain quality of Suzon’s skin.
In diametrically opposing contrast to her youthful delicacy, the male figure has been rendered with an alcohol induced redness that suggests vulgarity and sordidness. There can be little doubt as to Manet’s intentions in portraying him as anything less than lascivious.
Suzon is presented in two forms, one of them as the serving girl with the dislocated, detached expression, and the other, the reflected version leaning forward in a far more provocative attitude, perhaps in intimate conversation?
An initial etudé completed by Manet in 1881 shows a visually ‘correct’ viewpoint. The position of the viewer has yet to shift into the central position, (we have yet to become the male figure) and therefore the barmaid is not engaging us directly but looking left. The angle of the mirrored wall slightly pitches away rather than on a parallel plane with the counter. In the finished piece, and in the context of the paintings ambiguous conventions, the counter appears to be floating in mid air.
Manet also relocated the edge of the counter so that it ‘aligned’ with the pinnacle of the pyramid located between the Barmaid’s eyes. In its early stages, the line of this ‘vanishing point plane’ extended above and beyond the barmaids head.
Another interesting observation is the addition of the bangle on the right forearm (added late in the execution of the painting). Manet used this bangle motif on three prior occasions.
Firstly it features on ‘Olympia’ and secondly on ‘la toilette’ (1876-79) which I also believe to be a painting of Suzon (although I have not found any supporting evidence of this) and also ‘Nana’ (1877). Does the bangle deliberately unify these paintings in some way? Is it possible that Manet was alluding to some special intimate connection by the use of this device?
Conundrums abound throughout this painting, some obvious, others are less so. For instance, Manet, who had long been inspired by the works of Velasquez and Spanish art, had been affectionately known as the ‘Prince of Orange’. This might explain the large bowl of oranges on the counter and with it, recognition of, and his indebtedness to those Spanish influences. Indeed strong similarities exist between ‘Bar at the Folies Bergere’ and Velázquez’s painting ‘Las Meninas’. Both of which employ the use of mirrors and place you the spectator in the position of a central character.
Equally perplexing is the tantalising glimpse of a trapeze artist whose green clad legs can be seen suspended high above the crowd who seem oblivious to the spectacle. Notwithstanding the solemnity and melancholic nature of any moral message, could the absurdity of this pictorial component be part of some private humour? Manet also used a similar ‘dangling legs’ motif in ‘masked ball at the opera’ (1873/74).
By the time Manet had completed this painting, he was already seriously ill with a painful degenerative disease. In his last few years he became increasingly melancholy and said shortly before his death that “sorrow is at the root of all humanity and all poetry”. It has been said that this painting is suffused with that sadness.
Article written by Lee Tiller - Copyright 2005