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You've likely seen this glassy-eyed late 19th Century barmaid before, but what can we make of this painting today? Let's explore Edouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. You can go to to get started on your website!

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This is a painting of a woman tending bar in Paris during the latter half of the 19th century.  We know it was painted by French impressionist Edouard Manet in 1882 during the storied (?~0:18), a time of relative stability in France after over a century of revolution and conflict, after Paris had been transformed from a crowded labyrinth of winding streets to a modern city with new train terminals and straight, wide boulevards.  We know that it's set at the Folies-Bergere, a Paris cafe (?~0:37), where you could get a drink and be entertained and know Manet's model, (?~0:40), actually worked at the Folies-Bergere but posed for the artist at his studio, but there's a heck of a lot we don't know.  We don't know why we can see a man in the mirro behind her but not where he should be in the space in front of her.  We don't know what their relationship is, whether he's trying to buy a drink, or her and we don't know what's going on inside of her head behind the blank stare.  Is she just a person as unreadable from the outside as any other or is she a potent symbol of the estrangement of modern life, a kind of life where we witness and are part of the grand spectacle of capitalism and entertainment so central to our existence today?  Let's better know "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere".

Manet unveiled his painting at the Paris salon of 1882, among works like Alfred Philippe Roll's depiction of the first official celebration of Bastille Day.  It was at the salon that new, mostly safe academic art was tested out in front of audiences, but while most of Manet's impressionist peers like Claude Monet had abandoned the salon and informed their own exhibitions, Manet held firm to the institution, declaring, "The salon is the real field of battle.  It's there that one must take one's measure," and there he took his measure on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of success.  

The jury rejected his "Absinthe Drinker" in 1859 but it accepted and awarded "The Spanish Singer" in 1861.  

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He was again denied in 1863 and instead exhibited his "Luncheon in the Grass" at the (?~2:09), causing quite the stir for its (?~2:12) depiction of a naked woman cavorting with clothed men, despite its clear reference to a much loved Renaissance masterpiece.  He drew upon another 16th century masterwork for a painting that was accepted by the salon in 1865, but Manet's "Olympia" was reacted to with hostility and criticism.  This was no sensual Venus, they objected, but a common courtesan, depicted flatly and much too plainly, whom one writer described "Like a corpse on the counters at the morgue."  

Of course now it's much less provocative, but at the time, Manet prided himself not on making tired, hazy, and idealized versions of past events, but on being a painter of modern life in the words of his friend, the poet Baudelaire.  Manet observed what was around him in bustling Paris and rendered fragments of it in a distinct style.  His sharp contrast and elimination of half-tones we can credit to Spanish masters Goya and Velazquez, whom he greatly admired, as well as his interest, along with many of his time, in Japanese woodblock prints.

Manet painted a street singer eating cherries and fancy people gathered to hear music in gardens.  He traveled to Spain and painted bull fights.  He depicted scenes of the Franco-Prussian War and the execution of Maximillian in Mexico.  He painted his friends, including aritst Berthe Morisot, writer Emile Zola, and Monet at work on his studio boat.  Manet certainly wasn't the only one looking at modern life with fresh eyes in ways that many considered slap dash and unfinished, but he was fixated less on the scenery and more on the people that populated it.  

Poet Stephane Mallarme understood this focus as paralleling the post-revolutionary shift in their country, accounting for the "participation of a hithero ignored people in the political life of France."  This participation of the non-elite was also very much social and the Folies-Bergere was one of a plethora of venus where the social classes of Paris would mix and enjoy its copious new forms of entertainment.  

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Mallarme put it this way: "Today, the multitude demands to see with its own eyes and if our latter-day art is less glorious, intense, and rich, it's not without the compensation of truth, simplicity, and childlike charm," and so by the time we arrive at "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère", Manet's last major painting before passing away at age 51 from complications due to syphilis, we have a better sense of the barmaid before us as a player among many in the circus of modern Parisian life.  

The Folies-Bergère and other places like it were lit with the harsh and bright white light of newly electrified Paris.  For two franc, you could enter and enjoy a popular singer, dancer, or trapeze act, so hilariously indicated by these dangling legs.  You could also buy beer and champagne and meet prostitutes, as many have assumed our subject to be.  She is presented to us frontally, arranged just so along with an assortment of refreshments available for sale, her waistline expertly mimicing the fluted bowl of oranges.  The bar is decorated with flowers and so is her decolletage.  She is firmly part of the scene, rooted to her spot at this (?~5:18) marble counter, dividing her from us and us from her, and who is?

Perhaps we're the gentleman in the mirror, whose reflection Manet has conveniently shifted at an angle so we can see it.  A cartoonist at the time jokingly suggested to Manet what his picture should look like, but from behind, she seems to be in an active exchange with the man, which is not at all reflected in the detached gaze we see.  Perhaps the exchange had happened in the past or was about to happen.  Perhaps she's imagining it to happen.  

People couldn't reconcile the image at the time and they haven't been able to since, despite mountains of literature, re-enactments, and explorations in virtual reality.  The fact remains that she looks out at us, but is ultimately inaccessible.  

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She doesn't quite meet our eyes and her thoughts we can't pretend to know.  More than many artists of the time, Manet set his focus on women.  On rare occasions, they interact intently with others, but for the most part, they look.  We've caught them in moments of reverie, without strong or decodable emotion.  It was the birth of the blase attitude, what Georg Simmel described in 1903 as, "an indifference toward the distinctions between things."  A psychic mood that is the correct subjective reflection of a complete money economy. 

The cafe (?~6:38) embodied for many upper class Parisians the vulgarity and immorality of modern life and the loss inherent in the shift from the home as the center of social life to the cafe.  As Alfred Delvau described it in a Paris guide, "To live at home, to think at home, to eat and drink at home, we find this boring and inconvenient.  We need publicity, daylight, the street, the cabaret, the cafe, the restaurant.  We like to pose, to make a spectacle of ourselves, to have a public, a gallery, witnesses to our life."  This was written in 1867, long before the words could ring painfully true in our social media saturated ears, but before the weight of this painting and why Manet has been called the father of modernity is because here we are shown the beginnings of cultural life as we now know it.  

In this contradictory picture, we cannot distinguish real life from reflection.  The work is all surfaces, and what could be more relevant in this time as we navigate the oft mediated and mediating surfaces of our lives and participate in the cycle of consumer and consumed or perform our lives for a faceless crowd.  In late 19th century Paris and today, there's an excitement to this spectacle and to our participation in it, but also a sadness, an alienation, as we recognize ourselves as commodities.  

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We recognize this look.  We see it everywhere.  In others and most of all, in ourselves.  

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