‘Bar at the Folies Bergères’ by Edouard Manet (1882)

Manet’s Last Painting

Manet’s last painting ‘Bar at the Folies Bergères’, which seems at first sight to be a reflective study of an observer of the main action, turns out to be a paean to visual space. The simple composition of the woman behind the bar unravels into a sequence of interpretations that each are in counterpoint to the other. By building insoluble ambiguities into the structure of the scene, Manet invites us to join in the exploration of his artistic experience.

Our first thought is that the woman is standing behind a marble counter that is reflected in a large mirror just behind her. But, as Jonathan Miller says " . . . none of the supposed duplications adds up." There is a figure just behind the barmaid in the same pose and wearing the same clothes, but she is clearly at the wrong angle to be a literal reflection of the barmaid facing us. In fact, the marble bar and the gold frame defining the mirror just above it are exactly parallel to the picture plane, so the barmaid’s reflection would be hidden from view directly behind her. But let us suppose that Manet was invoking artistic licence in positioning the reflection, asking us to bend the geometry a little to allow the reflection to be visible. How would the rest of the picture map out?

Directly behind the barmaid is a marble countertop holding several bottles that are plausible replicas of those to our left. This counter must be a reflection of the one that anchors the lower border of the picture. But we have immediately learned that the bar, which looks so substantial under the barmaid’s hands, comes to an end just at her right. In the open space thus revealed we see some indistinct figures under what appears to be a mezzanine supported by a red pillar. The impressionistic figures above the gilt décor of the mezzanine wall-front resolve into patrons with their arms resting on the velvet-covered rim. These are evidently two begloved theatre-goers watching the action on stage to our left. One is accompanied by a swell sporting a monocle, the other, unaccompanied, is observing the entertainment through a pair of opera glasses. Behind them a couple seems to be sauntering toward their seats. All are apparently oblivious of the diversion of a trapeze artist caught in mid-swing above their heads. Manet has depicted this as a kind of suspended animation, almost as an afterthought to the evocation of the audience.

The elements of this scene may each be a logical component of a theatre composition, but their spatial relations make a bizarre mix. If the barmaid is standing before a mirror, the counter-top on which she is resting seems to be suspended in space over the heads of the patrons below the mezzanine. There seems to be no room in front of her for customers to approach the bar. The logical architecture would be to have a mezzanine that continues on the near side of the stage matching the part that we see on the far side of the stage. (Of course, since we are looking in a mirror, these actual spatial relations would be reversed, but the symmetry of the pairing on either side of the implied stage is just as compelling.) However, there is no sign of a mezzanine to support the bar reflected in the mirror. The bar is clearly the sole entity in its immediate vicinity, with open space behind it.

And what a mezzanine! Once we look at it, is seems to be crowded with people. It clearly goes back well behind the pillars. This is far from a normal theatre configuration. Nobody in the nether regions could see the stage to our left. Is it possible that this is yet another mirror, running along between the pillars, reflecting the patrons in the front of the mezzanine? To confirm this, we look for evidence of our barmaid but find none. Perhaps her reflection is again hidden behind her , so the conundrum remains unresolved.

So, let us suppose that the theatre is asymmetric and that it has some kind of platform to support the bar and the mirror. Does the picture then add up? Now we begin to notice that the group of reflected bottles, which has the right mix of grenadine, beer and champagne in both cases, is at the far edge of the marble counter both in direct view and in the reflection. If it were a true reflection, bottles at the far edge of the actual counter would appear at the near edge of the reflection. The detailed arrangement of the bottles also fails to match, with the beer being alongside the grenadine in the near view but at an angle to it in the apparent reflection. Evidently, Manet is playing tricks with us, evoking the sense of reflection but avoiding commitment to its geometrical requirements.

?With our attention drawn to the bottles, we now notice that there are two more sets of similar bottles over by the right edge of the picture. The symmetry of the main group on the bar reinforces the symmetry of the barmaid’s pose, standing four-square in the centre of the picture with both hands resting on the bar. This symmetry is softened by her averted gaze, by the flowers and fruit near her left hand, and by the displaced symmetry of the lights on the pillars behind her. But we cannot help noticing the similarity of the champagne, grenadine and even the trademark Bass ale in the two groups of bottles. Only the presence of a Cointreau bottle distinguishes them. Behind the barmaid’s ‘reflection’, we see the cap of another champagne bottle, reinforcing the sense that this is a reflection. Manet seems to be evoking a subtle interplay of the symmetry relations both laterally and in depth in the spatial arrangement of the bottles.

On top of the geometric relations, the evocation of space and atmosphere in the picture is superb. The glow of the light under the ‘reflected’ bottles, as it spills around their bases and reflects up from the marble surface, is deftly captured. The smoke arising from the orchestra seats and the haze that mutes the lights as they recede into the distance is lapidary.

What, then, of the barmaid figure with her back to us at the right of the picture? Is there some way that this could be the reflection of the central figure? The pose is identical but the position and angle could work only if we were at an angle to the bar, which we are not. Is Manet playing some kind of cubist trick of projecting multiple viewpoints in the same picture? Suppose we did angle the mirror, would the view then make sense? Directly in front of the ‘reflected’ barmaid is a gentleman in the requisite evening dress who seems to be ordering a drink. He has a kind of looming presence at the edge of the picture that is compelling once you notice him. However, in order to be a reflection, he would have to be immediately in front of the barmaid facing us. He is not there, so the only conclusion is that this formal figure is in fact us, the viewer. On this interpretation, Manet is compelling us to adopt the identity of this patron of the Folies Bergeres, moustache, goatee and all. However, if that is his intent, he is inconsistent in structuring the rest of the scene, which does not support the oblique interpretation of the mirror geometry.

An alternative view is that the scene to the right is a kind of materialization of the barmaid’s ‘reflections’, a visual pun on her inward gaze. She is thinking about the gentleman she has recently met, or would like to meet, and how he could liberate her from this narrow space between the counter and the mirror. Although we see her only from the back, the figure in the reflection seems far more attentive and supplicant than the resigned woman facing us. The idea that this interchange represents a vignette of the barmaid’s thought processes has clear appeal. Perhaps Manet is deliberately making the geometry of the reflections illogical to instigate our own reflections about the reflections of the introverted barmaid.