Thanks to Alan Mason for this new post. Be sure to check out Alan’s other posts here.This is one of the most famous paintings of the nineteenth century French Impressionist movement, and I regard it as an old friend. In the early 1960s, I was a student in the Bloomsbury district of London. In those days, the Courtauld Institute, and its own Gallery, was on the northern edge of Bloomsbury. I went to the Courtauld Gallery about every couple of weeks, and I could see “A Bar at the Folies Bergeres”, as well as many other works.
Typically, I would have my lunch in one of several modestly-priced institutional restaurants, like the Senate House tower (2), Birkbeck College, or The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. After lunch, a five minute walk took me to the Courtauld, where I could sit in comfortable armchairs and sofas to contemplate the artworks, during the rest of my break.
The gallery was not well-known to tourists and consequently was always very quiet. It was reached by a lift to the fourth floor, and there was always a secret feel about it; a hidden gem. All has changed now. In 1989 the Gallery, and Courtauld Institute were transferred to a much grander site,-Somerset House (3), a magnificent monumental conception, begun in 1775 by the architect, William Chambers.
It was designed to unite a number of government offices in one site. It has had a chequered history, because of a changing set of uses over the last 250 years. It was, for a time, the registry for births, marriages and deaths, and this designation has clung to the buildings, in popular parlance, despite any evidence to the contrary. The last time I visited it, was to consult its records of wills. Perhaps the presence of the Courtauld collection (4) will give the buildings a final and fitting function.
The new Gallery has plenty of room to hold a barn dance, or even a grand ball, but it lacks the quiet intimacy of the old gallery, with its blue furnishings. Sharp-eyed readers may detect Manet’s other famous masterpiece, “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe”, (“Lunch on the Grass”) on the right, and Cèzanne’s “Mont St Victoire” over on the extreme left.
The Folies Bergère
In the Britain of the 1940s and 1950s the phrase, “Folies Bergère” was a byword for female nude entertainment, mainly because few people had ever taken holidays abroad, or visited Paris. In reality, the Folies Bergère was what the English called a “music-hall”. It featured singers, comedians, trapeze acts, and magicians, as well as dancers and nude acts. The mirror, behind the barmaid, shows a trapeze (5), and the feet of the performer. A poster from the 19C promises scantily clad dancers (6).
The name of this French music-hall remains untranslated, like many idiomatic French phrases, mainly because the English translations just sound absurd. “Folies Bergère” literally means, “The Silly Shepherdess”. It opened in 1869 as the “Folies Trèvise” but changed its name three years later to “The Folies Bergère”, after a nearby street, the rue Bergère. (Ref B)
In illustration of the variety of entertainment at the Folies Bergères, a table of well-known performers is included below.
|Mistinguette, singer, actress (7)||Little Tich, dwarf comedian||WC Fields, comedian, actor|
|Maurice Chevalier, singer, actor||Charlie Chaplin, comedian, actor||Ella Fitzgerald, jazz singer|
|Edith Piaf, singer||Benny Hill, comedian,||Frank Sinatra, singer, actor|
|Yvonne Printemps, singer, actress||Elton John, musician, songwriter||Josephine Baker, singer, dancer|
|Jean Sablon, singer,|
|Charles Trenet, singer, songwriter|
|Yves Montand, singer, actor|
|Pierre Boulez, musician, composer|
|Marcel Marceau, mime artist|
|Fernandel, singer, actor|
The entertainer, Mistinguette, appeared both at the Folies Bergère, and at its rival music hall, the “Moulin Rouge” (Red Mill).
The Mirror in the Painting
Manet’s painting contains a number of puzzles. The most obvious one is the mirror behind the barmaid. Common sense dictates that it would be placed parallel to the marble-topped counter, on which she rests her hands. In that case, the reflection of the barmaid’s back would be immediately behind the girl, and the viewer would then appear face-on in the mirror.
Is the back view of a barmaid, seen in the mirror, the young woman facing us, or is it a different barmaid? Is the man with the heavy moustache and top hat, facing the reflection of the back of a barmaid, the viewer? Expert opinions vary on this problem. Linda Bolton claims, “…the reflection is deliberately inaccurate, not only in the positioning of the reflected figure, but also in the pose, which shows her smaller and leaning slightly forward. Manet’s denial of naturalism is provocative:” (Ref A)
However, in 2000 a staged reconstruction of the scene in the painting was set up, and photographed from a particular viewpoint. The photograph reproduced the scene exactly as Manet had painted it. It was discovered that the heavily moustached man on the extreme right (8), apparently in conversation with the barmaid, is actually outside the painter’s field of vision. It is an optical trick. (See Ref C) He has been identified as a real person, the painter, Gaston Latouche, a friend of Manet. (Ref A)
The Barmaid, Suzon
The young woman has been identified as “Suzon”, an employee of the Folies Bergère, who posed for Manet in his studio, set up to resemble the real bar. Her face is intriguing, as she seems detached; bored perhaps, or secretly unhappy.
Despite the youthful freshness of her face, it is claimed (Ref C) that Manet included the dish of oranges in the foreground, to indicate that she was a prostitute. Various contemporary writers stated that the women working at the Folies Bergère were prostitutes. The contemporary French author, Guy de Maupassant, described the waitresses at the Folies Bergère as “heavily made-up women who sold refreshments and love.” (Ref A) This hardly describes the girl in Manet’s painting.
Given that being a barmaid, or a waitress, is a busy and hectic life, one wonders how they had time to act as prostitutes as well. Imagine impatient customers waiting at the bar to be served with beer or wine, and wondering where the devil Suzon has got to.
On a lighter note, the bottles on the marble-topped counter have been identified by the red triangle on the label, as the British beer, Bass Pale Ale. There is also champagne, brandy and Crème de Menthe.
A. “Manet – History and Techniques of the Great Masters”, by Linda Bolton, Eagle, 2002
B. “Folies Bergère” Wikipedia article
C. “A Bar at the Folies Bergère” Wikipedia article
1. “A Bar at the Folies Bergere” by Edouard Manet, 1882 (Ref A)
2. Senate House tower, University of London (google images)
3. Somerset House from the courtyard (google images)
4. The new Courtauld Gallery, with the “Bar at the Folies” prominently displayed, left of centre (google images)
5. Trapeze Artist at the Folies Bergère (detail from Manet painting) (Ref A)
6. The “Lotus Flower” Show (Ref B)
7. Mistinguette at the “Moulin Rouge” (google images)
8. Gaston Latouche, “the optical trick” (Ref A)
9. “Suzon”, the barmaid at the Folies Bergère (Ref A)
10. The infamous bowl of oranges, with beer and wines (Ref A)