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The Bar at the Folies Bergère

Artist: Edouard Manet
Created: 1881-82
Dimensions (cm): 130.0 x 96.0
Format: Oil on canvas
Location: Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, England

This was Manet's last painting. It was exhibited at the 1882 Salon, and he died less than a year later. It is also his saddest work, and has proved a difficult piece for art historians to assess.

If we look at the reflection in the mirror behind the barmaid, the painting appears to be one of revelry and high spirits. The trapeze artist's feet (visible in the upper-left) and the woman with opera glasses (to the left of the barmaid's shoulder) provide additional comic touches. Indeed, the Folies-Bergère was a popular entertainment complex in its day, part café, part theater. It was a fashionable and expensive establishment that provided a notorious setting for elegant Parisian prostitutes, and was an infamous night spot. The lighthearted, hedonistic mood evident in the mirror, however, is completely overshadowed by the sullen barmaid.

It is a matter of personal reaction as to what emotions the waitress is expressing. It could be that of a sad and resigned exhaustion, the extreme physical fatigue of a working woman in a modern city. Her expression could equally be interpreted as one of alienation and degradation: given her place of work, she is quite possibly a prostitute herself too. Her half-vacant stare could also be that of a stoic observer of the cavorting crowd of patrons we can glimpse in the mirror.

The theme of a principal female figure who looks out directly at the viewer was one Manet was fascinated by. He used it in several other famous paintings, such as Gare Saint-Lazare and The Waitress. Here, in The Bar at the Folies Bergère, however, he captures an expression of remarkable power and ambiguity. It is appropriate that it was his swan song: it has captivated viewers and caused debate to this very day.


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