A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

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Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. 1882.

Edouard Manet completed A Bar at the Folies-Bergère during the last two years of his life in 1882. The subject of the painting, the bar, is depicted through a reflection behind the barmaid. This incredibly modern approach creates much mystery and ambiguity that its meaning is still debated among art historians. The big question lies in the inconsistency between reality and reflection. From the way the barmaid’s eyes meet the viewer’s gaze, the viewer should be standing directly facing her, yet the reflection of her and the male customer seems to suggest the viewer’s position is much more to the left. In fact, in Manet’s preparatory sketch of the painting, the reflection adheres more to reality. Manet changed the work substantially from the sketch; was he trying to convey something entirely different through the placement of the mirrored figures? 

Edouard Manet. Oil Sketch for A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. 1881-82.
One argument could be made that the mirrored image is an alternate reality. The barmaid dresses in the standard attire with the revealing neckline that the job requires. In the late 19th century, rapid modernization in Paris led to massive development of the entertainment industry, played out in various bars and nightclubs. The barmaid’s face reveals a profound sadness and blankness as she is trapped in her job and in life; she is exposed, distanced and vulnerable. On the contrary, her reflection indicates the way she is supposed to act, leaning in, intimate and responsive to her male customers.  Therefore the mirrored image contains more than physical but the psychological reflection of the barmaid’s world. In the alternative world, she stands back, meditating on the events that led her to this clearly miserable job. We as viewers are drawn to the sensual, as well as emotional aspect of the painting, wanting to help her escape from reality. Manet conveys his sympathy for the unnamed barmaid, suggesting that women like her are the victims of the bar culture. 

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