Who’s That Girl? Édouard Manet’s Bar Maid and Parisian Prostitution

*this post contains nudity*

Édouard Manet was a French painter and notable figure in the transition from realism to impressionism. He is, perhaps, best known for his last major work entitled “A Bar at the Folies Bergère,” which was completed in 1882. The painting is beset with deep blue hues and a forlorn female subject fills the center of the canvas. Presumably, she is the bar maid serving a myriad of cocktails to gentlemen in top hats, one of which can be seen behind her and to the right. What viewers also see in the scene is a muddled depiction of a crowd in high rise seats. Without knowing the title of the painting, one might assume this is an opera house, especially when one considers the subject over the bar maid’s right shoulder who is grasping a pair of theater glasses. As the title suggests, the painting depicts a scene in the Folies Bergère, a popular cabaret music hall located in Paris that was, in fact, initially built as an opera house.

barA Bar at the Folies-Bergère (Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère), 1882, Courtauld Gallery, London

The Perspective Controversy

Many scholars have argued over the background of this painting. The controversy over the perspective in the painting tends to even overshadow what Manet intended to be the subject of the work: the woman behind the bar. Art historians conclude that the background is not a background, but is, in fact, the room in front of the bar maid.  A mirror hangs on the wall behind her, the golden frame of which can be seen running at the level of her wrists just above the table’s surface. If this is a mirror, then why is there such a contrast in posture between the woman gazing at the audience and what is presumably the reflection of the same woman? If there is a top-hatted man speaking to the woman, then why does he not appear at the front right side of the counter?

As a writer might create an outline before writing a story, Manet created preliminary sketches to calculate the position of the bar maid. According to the Courtauld Institute of Art, “he [Manet] set up a bar and employed one of the barmaids, Suzon, to pose behind it.” 1 In the initial depiction, the bar maid’s body pivots to face a customer, her arms crossed politely at her waist. In the final version, the bar maid is placed in a more central position, though the reflection remains slightly turned. Manet’s odd manipulation of perspective prompts discussion regarding his purpose in deliberately and dramatically altering the subject’s posture. It is likely that Manet meant to reject the accepted norms of art. This reconstruction of classical perspective was the staple of Impressionism . The period preceding Impressionism valued realism and the accurate visual representation of perspective. The Courtauld Institute of Art explains the technicalities of Manet’s modifications:

The reflected images in the mirror are decidedly problematical and have triggered much comment. The barmaid is centrally placed and the reflection of the marble bar is parallel to the picture plane (meaning that the mirror is also parallel to the picture plane and that we are viewing the composition from a central vantage point). From this viewpoint the woman should in fact obscure her own reflection. But Manet has displaced her reflected image considerably to the right in a way that is consistent with the mirror being placed at an angle. Other anomalies are apparent. The placement of the bottles in the mirror is slightly different from that on the bar. Furthermore, the barmaid’s reflection seems to show her in a different light from the woman facing us. She is not absorbed in her detached reverie but is leaning forward solicitously and engaging her customer who stands directly across the counter. This customer, who occupies the space between her and the corner of the picture, is far too near to the barmaid in the reflection. His reflected proximity would logically place him between us, the spectator and the bar. But there is perhaps a reason for his absence. Even though the barmaid is not engaging us directly as does Manet’s favourite model Victorine in Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, she nevertheless gazes out of the picture into the space occupied by the viewer and by her next customer, and it seems that Manet may indeed wish to conflate the two in our minds — the viewer is the next customer and may be identified with the rather sketchily drawn gentleman.

oilsAn initial sketch with oils

Technicalities aside, Manet’s painting expresses more than a dislike of classicism. “A Bar at the Folies Bergère” is a fascinating vignette of 19th-century Parisian social culture. The painting offers such sensory pleasure with its contrasting hues and busy background. One can almost hear the sweeping vocals of the performers onstage, the icy chink of glasses, and the quiet murmurs of chatting customers. Naturally, one is struck by the woman at the center of the canvas. Yes, she is a bar maid, but is there more to her story?

French Politics & La Belle Époque

Before delving into the possible identity of the bar maid, I first want to discuss the history of French politics at the time the painting was composed—during the Belle Époque. This era in Western history ranges from 1871 to 1914, ending at the start of the First World War. Translated from French, the term means “the beautiful era.” This period in France was characterized by the adoration of aesthetic beauty and innovation, and it also marked the start of the French Third Republic. 2 Little did people know that in two decades the collective easiness of mind following the end of war would devolve into anxiety over the state of the Western world once again. In retrospect, “the beautiful era” could as aptly be titled “the good ol’ days.”

La Belle Époque was essentially a brief moment of peace in the midst of political turmoil. After Emperor Napoleon III was captured during the Franco-Prussian War, the Second French Empire collapsed and France was divided in their support for either a revitalization of monarchy or the development of a democratic republic. The latter of the two would eventually become the permanent government of France. The Encyclopaedia Britannica reads:

Commune of Paris, also called Paris Commune, French Commune de Paris, (1871), insurrection of Paris against the French government from March 18 to May 28, 1871. It occurred in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-German War and the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–70). The National Assembly, which was elected in February 1871 to conclude a peace with Germany, had a royalist majority, reflecting the conservative attitude of the provinces. The republican Parisians feared that the National Assembly meeting in Versailles would restore the monarchy. To ensure order in Paris, Adolphe Thiers, executive head of the provisional national government, decided to disarm the National Guard (composed largely of workers who fought during the siege of Paris). On March 18 resistance broke out in Paris in response to an attempt to remove the cannons of the guard overlooking the city. Then, on March 26, municipal elections, organized by the central committee of the guard, resulted in victory for the revolutionaries, who formed the Commune government.

The Commune was violently suppressed by the regular military, leaving 20,000 insurrectionists dead and 38,000 arrested. In the last days of the Commune, Paris had been vandalized and many of the structures burned. The new government planned to borrow money for the sole purpose of reconstructing Paris. The Palais de la Légion d’Honneur (Hôtel de Salm) was reconstructed in its original style and the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Métro were built for the first time. In addition to buildings, monuments were also erected. The Dahesh Museum of Art writes that “by the end of the 1870s Paris had recovered, and the Third Republic began commissioning monuments that glorified both the war and the new government. In 1879 the Prefecture of the Seine, for instance, held a competition for a new monument on the theme of Defense, to be constructed in Courbeville, a site where the French had fought the Prussians.” 3

eiffel towerEiffel Tower, 1888, Historical Photos

metroParis Métro Construction, 1900, Getty Images

The Folies-Bergère and Prostitution

Slightly before this era of reconstruction, the Folies-Bergère from Manet’s work was built; it was first constructed as the Folies Trévise in 1869, but was later reopened with the name we know now on 1872. It was one of the first major cabaret halls in the city. In the late 1800s, the bar and theater hybrid presented music comedies, operas, ballets, acrobats, and magicians, but the prevalence of female semi-nudity likely had much to do with the institution’s popularity among Parisians and tourists.Although, a fully nude cast would not grace the theater’s stage until 1918. In regards to female sexuality, it is believed that many of the women employed as bar maids at the Folies Bergère were also prostitutes. This profession was not at all uncommon in Paris in this era. According to Un Jour de plus à Paris, there were at least 224 brothels in the city alone. Luxury brothels did exist—and some include the Folies Bergère among them. 4

1918.jpgGaston Paris, 1918, Roger Viollet, Getty Images

1918 2Gaston Paris, 1918, Roger Viollet, Getty Images

It is possible that in his painting Manet covertly suggests that the bar maid does not only serve drinks, but perhaps serves men with sexual favors. In her book Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era, Hollis Clayson writes:

That the picture actively addresses the possible double profession of the barmaid—serving and prostitution—was clear to observers in 1882. Critic were, of course, drawing upon their personal knowledge of social life at the Folies-Bergère nightclub, but their assumption that Manet’s painting  posed explicit questions about the server’s morality was encouraged and sustained by the famous conundrum of the double woman. The frontal barmaid stands upright and appears cool, detached, and aloof, whereas the reflected woman leans forward slightly and acts subservient to the adjacent, looming male customer. The plot of the commercial transaction at the bar is eroticized by being provided with two possible outcomes. In one “she does”: in the other, “she doesn’t.”

Indeed, the two separate women seem to represent the double identity of this bar maid, and perhaps the double identity of other women from the Folies-Bergère. It appears that Manet not only fought back against artistic classicism but also saucily combatted rigid ideas of the human body, primarily the female body.

In either form, the woman is trapped in some way, either confined behind a counter or entrapped in a reflection. The idea that we’re seeing the secondary woman via a reflection is interesting: if we consider reflections somewhat like an alternate version of reality, it’s as if this part of the bar maid is not subject to it. Does Manet suggest that the viewer intentionally disregards prostitution in the city of Paris out of disgust? As the morals of the previous age remained, part of society condemned the regularity of sexual soliciting. According to Jason Farago: “in the Paris of the late 19th Century, prostitution was a central part of daily life, a private transaction with public ramifications. Prostitution was strictly regulated during the reign of Napoleon III and this continued into the 20th Century. Soliciting was illegal and instead women had to register with the police, work out of a single brothel and pay tax.” Perhaps Manet visually represents the two eras of French social culture: the age defined by morality and the new age of modernity.

In regards to the female subject appearing trapped, much can be said about the conditions of women embroiled in prostitution. Farago goes on to write that prostitutes sometimes elected to kill themselves rather than be detained by the brigade des mœurs, or vice squad. Courtesans were one rank above prostitutes because in addition to sexual favor they also provided conversation and elegance. Nevertheless, many courtesans were bound to their employers as Nina Kushner writes: “Debt was one way the madams bound sex workers to them, compelling them to stay in the brothels to work. Some workers arrived with debt the madams assumed. Others borrowed money from the madams to pay for their food and clothing and particularly for medical care, the cost of which could easily exceed a prostitute’s earnings.” 7 If the audience thinks metaphorically, Manet’s bar maid is physically trapped by her work; barred in by the counter littered with alcohol and “fruit” for sale. And although Hollis Clayson labels the bar maid’s face “cool, detached, and aloof,” she may also be perceived as being disenchanted and morose. Given the circumstances surrounding women, specifically prostitutes, it seems apt that Manet would have captured this expression of dejection perhaps evident upon the face of his model, Suzon.

Once the painting has been contextualized, are there details that you notice that illustrate the state of Paris after the demise of the Commune? What other interpretations of the bar maid’s reflection might there be? And what other artists offer commentary on the social culture of 19th century France?

For further information on perspective in “A Bar at the Folies Bergère,” you can watch this.

Works Cited

  1. “Folies-Bergère” from Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. “Commune of Paris” from Encyclopaedia Britannica
  3. “The Franco-Prussian War and Its Aftermath in French Art” by the Dahesh Museum of Art
  4. “The Belle Epoque Heyday of Paris Brothels” by Explore Paris, Un Jour de plus à Paris
  5. Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era By Hollis Clayson
  6. “Courtesans and Street Walkers: Prostitutes in Art” by Jason Farago
  7. “The Case of the Closely Watched Courtesans” by Nina Kushner

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