Edouard Manets Bar at the Folies Bergere was completed in 1882. This was to be the last major work Manet would complete before his death. The painting was intended for the Salon, and because of his recently awarded Legion of Honor, Manet could be sure this piece would be accepted. This painting would be considered from the impressionistic style.
That Manets Bar is a masterpiece can hardly be argued, but the intent of the piece however is the source of much debate. The following evidence will show that this is a null point; it will show that the artist in fact did not intend to provoke any emotion or thought besides aesthetic emotion. Manet has taken something he found to be worthy of portraying, and slightly romanticized it into merely a involved painting which is pleasing to the eye (Roskill 231). After this was exhibited at the Salon, and Manet was disappointed with the public, who saw the subject rather than his masterly rendition (Rewald 366). To be disappointed that people were seeing the subject of his painting and projecting meaning upon it, not only focusing how well the painting was fashioned, seems to show in itself that the painting did not have the meaning some try to ascribe to it. Manets Bar at the Folies Bergere is just a pretty picture that is not dealing with issues of sexuality, but tries to appeal to the public by imitating the style of advertisements and posters, and was an attempt to make a piece of art merely to be sold.
The barmaid, generally considered the focal point of the piece, is often thought to be a prostitute. Some believe Manet could have been using her slightly detached gaze to show a specific feeling towards these actions or any of countless theories on the subject. Suzon, the barmaid, was in fact not a prostitute in any way. This woman actually did serve drinks at the Folies Bergere, and this serving of drinks was her livelihood. Manet asked her to sit in his studio to model for the painting, and when she consented it was only on the condition that her boyfriend be allowed accompany her (Iskin 25). To model for a painting is not something a prostitute would have had any problem with, especially in that day. For Suzon to insist on her boyfriend accompanying her shows how absurd the assumption is that she was a prostitute. This should show her good intentions, however the reputation of the bar and the frequent prostitution and sexual availability of the women is too well known for many to assume she has chaste intentions. More evidence pointing towards the fact that the barmaid is not being used to convey anything specific besides a pretty face is in Juliet Bareaus work, exhibited in The Hidden Face of Manet which was held at the Courtland Institute in April-June of 1986. This work showed through X-ray images that Manet previously included a barmaid who was not Suzon at all, but is very close to the subject of some earlier sketches and studies. The painting that can be seen today then covered up this barmaid that was originally to be used. In the version discovered by X-rays the barmaid is facing left and has her hands at her waist. The viewpoint was originally farther right and lower than in the end product. With these conditions the reflections for the maid, and customer, would be in appropriate positions, the mirrors reflection would be true to life and would not have the seemingly mysterious intentions that it accidentally happened upon in its current condition (de Duve par. 16). This evidence points to the fact that Manet did not have the painting planned out when he began, rather it states rather strongly that the painting matured throughout its execution. The ideas changed as the painting progressed, and they did so drastically enough to show that there could be no distinct meaning in the things he was so vastly changing. The barmaid, throughout the conception of the painting, has changed from a profile view to a frontal view; hands have moved from her waist to her sides; and the identity of the woman changed from a unknown barmaid to Suzon. She is not meant to portray sexuality, nor is the man in the reflection meant to be searching to purchase her sexual favors. These are just two subjects in a bar, whose relationship with each other has become unintentionally skewed through the changes the piece underwent through its conception.
Manets composition in this painting has the kind of direct appeal to the observer that was common in the posters and illustrations of the time (Iskin 30). These posters emerged as a new modern way to advertise products to the masses and were quite prominent in the last half of the 19th century. Manet knew a good deal about these posters, for he had himself produced lithographs and posters, the most well known being his poster for Les Chants, a 1868 book by Champefleury (Iskin 36). Through his experience of producing these advertisements and posters he began to understand their style. This style that was emerging in Paris that was designed to capture the attention of the masses was incorporated in the Bar painting. This painting became like one of these posters or advertisements, merely something to intrigue the public without any serious intent. All of the bottles are arranged in a way not so much like traditional still life arrangements as like advertising images that were visible in Paris through the later half of the 19th century. Even the idea for putting the woman at the bar, behind a counter laden with goods is very closely copied from posters. While Manets painting is not advertising any specific product as a poster would, it nonetheless includes the same feel you would expect if this were to be the case. The entire piece was meant to bring you in, and offer something for everyone. This, more than any other painting at the time, was for the masses. As a student who observed Manet while painting said, Everything was re-modeled: the tones were brighter, the colors more vivid, the values closer together. The result was a gentle, light harmony(Mathey 105). Through these slight changes to the rendering Manet was able to more easily involve the public in his work.
The painting is an attempt to be sold, nothing more. Manet, along with most other artists, was forced to gain the public interest to ensure the sale of his artwork could support him. He was dependent on the public, and this painting was catering to their wants instead of using artistic intent. This painting was meant to reach the masses. A counter filled with products including champagne bottles and other brightly colored drinks, mandarin oranges, and roses creates what Hajo Dutchting calls, a still life that is one of Manets most masterly achievements (112). This wonderful craftsmanship throughout this painting has made it a favorite of the masses for generations, precisely what the artist desired. Manet himself makes a specific reference pointing towards the fact that the painting was produced as a commodity, something made exclusively to be sold for a profit, in the painting itself.This reference is made in the piece by signing and dating the painting on the lower corner of a bottle of reddish liqueur. This associates the painting with the liqueur, something that is produced specifically for sale. In doing this Manet expresses the fact that the painting is associated with the liquors mass produced for sale. He is producing to fulfill the demand of society, in an attempt to make a profit. According to Ruth Iskin Manet was in great need of money during the years of 1879-80 as well, because of the cost of treatments at a Bellevue clinic. Because of this need of money, Mery Laurent assisted Monet in the sale of one of his paintings. Once the deal was finished the client sent Monet a crate of mandarin oranges, a gift he thoroughly enjoyed (37). The inclusion of both Laurent and the mandarin oranges could be out of hopes that this painting will meet the same end as the ones Laurent assisted him in selling.
Bar at the Folies Bergere was Manets last great work. The intent for this painting was merely to show the pretty picture of a barmaid in a setting. Hagen describes the piece in this way; He painted a barmaid in her everyday uniform and surroundings, but did so in such a way that that critics have seen her a mythical figure (Hagen 451). There is great craftsmanship in the piece, and this alone was what the artist was trying to convey. Manet wanted to give the public a great work, and something that would be for the masses. This was not some commentary on prostitution or sexuality. Through the X-ray evidence it can be clearly seen that Manet did not have a specific intent. It is evident that this painting was merely meant to show Manets mastery of the medium and produce something that would appeal to the masses. The painting overall was produced to be sold, because this is what was the most necessary to Manet at the time.
de Duve, Thierry. How Manets A Bar At The Folies-Bergere Is Constructed Critical Inquiry. Autumn 1998. p136+.
Duchting, Hujo. Edouark Manet, Images of Parisian Life. Munich: Prestel,
Hagen, Rose-Marie and Ranier. What Great Paintings Say. NY: Taschen, 2000.
Iskin, Ruth E. Selling, seduction, and soliciting the eye: Manets Bar at the Folies-Bergere. The Art Bulletin. March 1995 v77 p25-44.
Mathey, Francois. The Impressionists. New York: Fredrick A. Praeger, 1967.
Roskill, Mark. Van Gough, Gauguin and the Impressionist Circle. Grenwich CT: New York Geographic Society, 1970.
Rewald, John. The History of Impressionism. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946.