The Mystery Behind Édouard Manet's Last Painting

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,

Édouard Manet is known as one of the controversial artists of his time. Manet was born to a wealthy family on January 28, 1832, in Paris, France. From an early age, Manet knew that he wanted to be an artist and was privileged to have famous artists such as Thomas Couture to study with. Most of Manet’s artworks during the 1850s often depict “contemporary themes and everyday life." Manet “beautifully captures these moments in between the flashes in time when people break from their roles and… catch a glimpse of their authentic selves.” Take his last painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for example, where a barmaid, who we later found out to be called Suzon, looked quite distant and uninterested in her surroundings despite her background full of people.

 

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is considered to be Manet’s most puzzling artwork of all time. Questions were raised in regard to this artwork, such as “Why does the woman’s reflection not match the actual woman standing at the bar?” or “Who is the man in the mirror and why is he not in front of Suzon?” The painting was exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon in 1882, a year before Manet’s death. Manet focused the painting to be centered around the setting rather than the subject by naming the painting after the bar and not Suzon—but what was it about this painting that puzzled people so much?

 

Folies-Bergère is a popular music hall in Paris, France, which showcases various entertainments, particularly during the late 19th century. Barmaids at this bar are known for selling not only alcoholic drinks but also their bodies. These barmaids are often called “vendors of drink and love.” However, the woman in Manet’s painting seems disinterested and her gaze seems “painfully human,” adding a layer of separation besides the marble bar that physically separates her from everyone. As for the man in the mirror, viewers speculate that the man is Manet himself. Based on the reflection, the man seems to be interacting with Suzon, but why is it that viewers cannot view the man in the painting and just his reflection?

 

Some critics dismissed these interesting details of the painting, writing them off as careless errors made as a result of Manet rushing to finish the piece. However, experts debunked this claim. Manet’s original study of the artwork was finished, but it looked different from what we know of the painting now. In the study, the barmaid is turned to the side and had her arms crossed, her hairstyle is in a fancier updo, and the perspective had also been altered significantly. According to experts, the changes in the painting were deliberate. These changes can be seen through the x-ray images done in the final painting where Manet shifted the woman’s reflection to the right a few times and the reflection of the man was made larger and higher, compared to his reflection in the final painting.

Viewers and critics don’t know exactly why Manet made these changes. However, there was a study done in 2000 by art scholar Malcolm Park to understand the painting’s perspective. By recreating the scene, Park concluded that Manet would have been positioned to the right of the bar; thus explaining why the man is out of frame but visible in the mirror. He also suggested that the man is really, in fact, to the left of the woman and looking away from her, causing an optical trick. At the same time, Manet rotated the woman slightly to face the viewers and away from the man. Lastly, Manet’s “biggest alterations of reality” appeared to be the edge of the marble bar, which is angled higher. Manet did this as a way to create a “vanishing point behind the woman’s head” to draw viewers to Suzon’s expression.

 

Currently, the painting is located at The Courtauld Gallery, in Central London, as part of the permanent collection. The Folies-Bergère continues to stand and operate in the heart of Paris, France. As for the woman in the painting, her gaze and her thoughts will always remain a mystery but, maybe, not for Manet. Manet died a year after he completed A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, but he remained passionate about art until his last breath. Manet will always be remembered as “the first of the moderns, and a bold, influential artist.”


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