Annotation – A Realist Image

Eduard Manet – A Bar at the Folies-Bergere


This painting was Manet’s last great work (1), executed only a year before his death and it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1882 (5). The brief asks to describe a painting exhibited by Courbet, or by one of the early impressionist such as Manet. I chose this painting before I had read on to Project Four which suggests this painting for the first exercise so perhaps it would have been better to choose an earlier work by Manet for this annotation. Despite it’s lateness in the period, I think this image is still suitable for this exercise as it certainly demonstrates a realistic portrayal of life although perhaps make less use of the classical traditions that his earlier work.

1-The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres, by Edouard Manet

Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881 to 1882, 96 x 130cm, Courtauld Gallery

Manet has shown the women with an expression of terrible sadness. It is the most prominent thing about the painting with it’s contrast to the atmosphere of bustling jollity of the people reflected in the mirror behind her. The gentleman she is serving is also not smiling. They are engaged in a serious exchange although they don’t appear to be talking. Manet has led the viewer to believe  that she is a prostitute, something that the Folies-Bergere was renowned for.

The painting is split into two parts: the space in the front, and the space reflected in the mirror at the back (1). The mirror’s surface is murky and foggy but this serves to help identify that this is a reflection (1). It tells two stories, the former  is detailed, and gives an air of stillness telling the viewer of the plight of the barmaid. The latter is busy and crowded, depicted with much looser brush strokes, this is a superficial scene with no depth  and is a mass of people, their faces a blur. Manet perhaps has chosen to juxtapose these spaces to highlight the shallowness of the Paris social scene.The gentleman is shown only in the reflected part, in this way he exists in the insincere and uncaring world of modern society.

The central position of the woman at the bar, emphasised by the line of buttons, exactly in the mid line, is suggestive of the central position that the Virgin Mary would take in devotional paintings from earlier times. This is further indicated by the sadness of the woman’s face which was also generally shown in these paintings (2). Thus in this way Manet has reflected his knowledge of traditional themes but has interpreted them in a very different way. The educated viewer will liken the barmaid to the Virgin Mary and her sadness at her way of life to the sorrow felt by the Virgin Mary.

The Gentleman

By placing the barmaid in this central position facing us and making eye contact with us, Manet clearly has intended the viewer to feel like they are the customer, and by extension perhaps they are the gentleman in the corner, reflected in the mirror. This brings a certain amount of unease to the viewer. A responsibility for her sorrow is inferred.

However, his positioning in the reflection seems impossibly too far to the right as is the woman’s reflected back. This distortion is perhaps Manet’s artistic license solely to convey the sinister nature of the gentleman just glimpsed in the corner. If the reflection was more central, the composition would be more central and the gent would be too visible, becoming a focal point and thus less mysterious.

Some have argued that Manet’s reflected perspective could actually be correct (4). If I understand it correctly, Dr. Malcolm Park has shown how the scene can be explained optically if the viewer was in an “off-set” position so not directly in front of the woman but slightly to the side. This then means that the gentleman we see in the corner is not the person the barmaid is looking at, it is the viewer. If this is so, it demonstrates the amount of planning that has gone into this composition, in order to make the viewer question who the man is and who she is looking at.

Still Life

The items on the bar are an important part of the composition. They have been arranged carefully as a still life would be. An oil sketch performed at the Folies-Bergere in preparation for the final painting does not show this array of bottles so Manet has chosen to add them for specific effect. Still life as a subject had lost popularity by the 19th century but Manet felt it was the “touchstone of the painter” (6). His meaning in focusing such detail on this area may have been to demonstrate the number and variety of options available to the customer. Perhaps this was a further allusion to the woman’s availability for more than just preparation of drinks.

Further meaning can perhaps be ascribed to the bowl of oranges on the bar. According to some, Manet included oranges in all of his paintings when depicting prostitutes (7). Alternatively they may be a further representation of the assault to all of the senses that such a place created. Certainly, there seems no reason that the fruit would be at the bar unless they had some significance to the artist. Similarly, roses have been used as a symbol of Venus, the Goddess of Love since classical times (8), so they perhaps are a further indication of love being on offer at the bar.

manet_bar_folies sketch

Manet, Un Bar aux Foiles-Bergere: Oil Sketch for A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881, 47x56cm, Private Collection

As mentioned above, the sketch can be studied to determine what Manet has added to the final painting that perhaps wasn’t actually there.  It thus makes these adjustments more important as he made a decision to include these in the scene.

The sketch gives an indication that the brown wood in the reflection that I initially thought was another bar, may actually be a balustrade of a raised gallery. This gives a totally different viewpoint of the picture, we are not in a flat area after all, but apparently in a raised area, like the grand circle in the theatre and the bar is at the back of this. Below us is evidently the stage where the performed would be. We can’t see the drop of the circle at our side but the reflection shows us the circle at the other side of the theatre. It is possible to see in the reflection, the people in the stalls below.

The woman is very different in the sketch, she seems older and more aloof, much less innocent. She is also not staring directly out and although is not smiling, does not indicate the sadness shown in the final painting. So it seems Manet has chosen to add these nuances to the painting in order to tell a story. He wanted to emphasis the woman’s unhappiness and makes the viewer consider the reason for her unfortunate circumstances.

Similarly in the sketch, Manet has not included the disembodied feet at the top of the picture, indicating this was an after-thought he added in the studio. For what purpose though? The feet not only give the viewer an indication of the kind of show the people are watching but also creates a bit of humour in my opinion. They are only visible if the viewer really looks, and the immediate effect of seeing them is a bit of a chuckle at their absurdity. This however seems at odds with the rest of the painting and what we know of Manet so perhaps his reason was actually to emphasise the frivolity of the Folies-Bergere and highlight the contrast to the barmaid’s misery.

Thus by examining the initial sketches of the scene, we can see that Manet’s version of realism is not real. He has attempted to make it “more real” by changing reality to tell a story of how he perceived the barmaid’s situation.This draws the question of what is “realism”. The artists wanted to show the true to life events but in order to do this they had to manufacture a story just as much as the Baroque painters and their frivolous images.

Baudelaire’s vision that works of art should have an “imaginative grasp of the ages paradoxical spasm of heroism and its moral and spiritual desolation” is certainly present in this work. Manet has painted a contemporary scene at the popular new venue Folies-Bergere but he has injected it with a moral theme by focusing on one of the barmaids who were known to be available as prostitutes. Another layer of meaning is then comprehended when the viewer perceives the barmaid’s face. It appears that she is not entirely happy about her situation which then moves the responsibility from her, to the society that has allowed this to happen and which we are a part of. Her acceptance of this unpleasant occupation makes her a hero in the viewers eyes.

Manet is celebrated for his style of adapting traditional methods and ideas to contemporary images. Although this is not as obvious in this painting as in his others, there are certain references to classical tradition he has used such as the central position of the Virgin Mary and the inclusion of still life in his painting particularly the roses and the oranges which perhaps had specific meaning.


1. Edited by Collins, B. (1996) 12 Views of Manet’s Bar, 1st edition, Princeton University Press, New Jersey

2. Alexander Graham-Dixon Website –, 24/02/14

3. The Courtauld Gallery Website –, 24/02/14

4. The J. Paul Getty Trust Website –, 24/02/14

5. The J. Paul Getty Trust Website –, 24/02/14

6. The Musee d’Orsay Website –, 24/02/14

7. Lanier, D. (2004) Absinthe: The Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century , Reprint edition, McFarland Publishers, Jefferson

8. Ferguson, G. (1959) Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, Oxford University Press

Word Count – 1628


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