Just a couple of weeks ago the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford successfully managed to purchase a painting by the Impressionist painter Edouard Manet in order to keep it in Britain. ‘The Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus’ might not be one of the artist’s most famous pieces but it is considered an important study for a more well-known work, Le Balcon. Anyway, reading this news put me in mind of another Manet painting which is also in England that I am rather fond of. A Bar at the Folies Bergere is to be found at the Courthold Institute in London. Finished in 1882 it was to be Manet’s last major painting and it was a fitting end to a quite fabulous career.
The main character is a young girl working behind the bar at the Folies Bergere in Paris. This popular nightclub in the late 19th century, with shows similar to those found at the Moulin Rouge, was the place to find a good cross section of the city’s inhabitants along with many tourists. The Folies Bergere would put on different types of shows, operettas, acrobatics and dancing and was one of the most popular entertainment venues in the city at the time. Manet chose a venue that would have been immediately recognised by those seeing the painting, one that he might have felt represented the city as a whole.
So what is it all about? Well, to me this is a painting about how we see things. (click here to get a closer look) The girl looks straight towards us and there appears to be a reflection behind, quite obviously she is standing in front of a large mirror. It is an interesting stylistic touch to make us look at a reflection. However, this reflection seems not to be correct, the angle is surely wrong. Also, the girl in the reflection is looking directly into the face of a tall male in a black hat, who is he and why doesn’t he obscure her face as we look at her? The girl facing us seems distant, almost sad, but the girl in the reflection is very close to the face of the mysterious character, seeming much more engaged. Just what is going on? Art Historians have spent a long time trying to work it out and some very interesting studies have shown that the angles are actually rather perfectly worked out by the artist – the man in the reflection would be directly to our right as we look at the girl. As for the rest, I leave it to you to make your own decision on what it all means.
So what else do we find in this wonderful painting? A woman with binoculars is carefully watching the show, but why use binoculars when she is sitting in the front row? Look to the top left and you will see a pair of legs standing on a trapeze. Such entertainment would certainly have formed part of the show at the Folies Bergere. The beer bottles are instantly recognisable as an English brand (Bass Pale Ale) rather than the German beers one might have expected to find. The painting was done shortly after the Franco-Prussian war, anti-German sentiment might have been on display.
In all, it is a quite terrific work, if you find yourself in London then I definitely recommend finding some time to go and see it. After that, take a trip up to Oxford, the Ashmolean has so much to offer and they should be rightly proud of their work in keeping another Manet painting in England.
What are your observations of this painting?