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15 Intoxicating Facts About Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

The title A Bar at the Folies-Bergère might have you expecting a simple depiction of another night out in 19th century Paris. But Édouard Manet laced this 1882 masterpiece with mystery, from the ambiguous expression of its central figure to the smoke and mirrors of its execution. 

1. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a grand sight to behold. 

Measuring in at 37.8 inches by 51.2 inches, it is a large piece. Moreover, Manet included curious details, like a woman peering through opera glasses, that force the viewer to imagine what might exist beyond the frame. 

2. It's set in a Parisian hot spot. 

Established in 1869, Folies-Bergère is more than a bar. It was a music hall where the upper middle class of Paris flocked for a wide array of spectacular entertainment, including ballet, cabaret, acrobatics, pantomime, operetta, and animal acts. As you might imagine with so much going on, the place was also a hang-out for artists seeking inspiration. 

3. It was not painted at the bar. 

Though Manet did several preparatory sketches on location, he worked on this massive masterpiece in the privacy of his studio

4. A trapeze artist hides almost out of frame. 

Look to the upper left corner of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and you'll notice a pair of green slippers at the ends of two pale legs, standing on a swing. These limbs belong to an acrobat performing for the wealthy guests of this extravagant bar. Just another night at Folies-Bergère! 

5. A contemporary beer makes a cameo. 

To the right of the bottle of red wine, you'll see a brown bottle with a red triangle on its label, which was the UK's first registered trademark. That's the logo for Bass Brewery, established in 1777 and still in production today.  

6. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère withstood accusations of flawed perspective. 

At first glance, you might think the balconies and grandness of the titular bar sit behind the becoming barmaid. But if you observe the bottles to her left and the woman turned away at her right, you'll see these are reflections from the mirror, the gold frame of which can be spotted behind her wrists. Confusion arose from this use of perspective. Is the viewer meant to be the mustachioed gentleman to the right? If so, the angles of the mirror seem off. Is it Manet's mistake? 

7. Its distinctive perspective sparked debate. 

Some say the potentially flawed perspective was meant to show us two sides of this woman's experience. In the reflection, she appears to lean in, being engaged and even potentially flirtatious with her customer. In the other reality, she is at best ambivalent to his presumed attentions. And if we're meant to stand in for the man, did Manet intend for us to empathize with her or him?  

8. The barmaid may be a prostitute. 

Nearly 20 years earlier Manet stirred controversy with The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia for their perceived display of prostitutes on the job, so he wouldn't have shied away from the subject matter. And it wouldn’t have been crazy to suggest that the famous bar’s workers were selling more than just refreshments—the writer Guy de Maupassant famously and none-too-subtly called Folies-Bergère's barmaids “vendors of drink and of love.” Some viewers have suggested this double life is what the painting’s mirror is actually reflecting. 

9. Manet painted her once more. 

Today we know her only as Suzon. She was an actual barmaid at Folies-Bergère, and that's likely where she met Manet. He also painted her portrait in a piece known today as Model for the barmaid of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which can be found at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon. 

10. The reflected intimacy might be a trick of the eye. 

Art historian Malcolm Park created a photographic reconstruction and diagram to map out where the barmaid, the top-hatted customer, and the viewer would have been in the actual bar. Park's findings indicated the viewer is not the man pictured, but a person coming from the right and therefore not reflected in the mirror. This perspective condenses the distance between the reflected man and woman, visually creating a false sense of intimacy in the mirror. Even this knowledge doesn't resolve the questions of Manet's emotional intentions. 

11. An earlier draft of the final painting offers a curious contrast. 

The preparatory sketch Le Bar Aux Folies-Bergère shows Manet initially tested a version where the barmaid was turned more clearly toward her customer, altering the perplexing perspective. 

12. X-rays revealed Manet made a major change during painting.

Scans showed Manet originally painted the barmaid with her arms crossed at her waist, her right hand holding her left forearm above the wrist. It's a pose that more closely mimicked the early sketch than the final piece, and seemed to suggest a more obvious vulnerability. 

13. Las Meninas might be an influence. 

Diego Velázquez's unusual royal portrait from 1656 also played with perspective in a way that's long inspired debate and interpretation. Manet was a noted admirer of the 17th century Spanish painter's works. Art historians suspect A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was his take on that strange and seemingly candid portrait. 

14. It was Manet's last major work. 

Manet's illustrious career was studded with groundbreaking works that bridged the gap between Realism and Impressionism while sometimes courting controversy. When the Parisian art scene couldn't grasp his greatness, he spent his own money to fund his exhibitions. In 1882, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère made its debut at the prestigious Paris Salon. The artist's health was fading as he struggled to complete the piece that would become one of his most acclaimed. Manet died at age 51 the following April with A Bar at the Folies-Bergère back in his studio. 

15. This Paris scene lives in London. 

English industrialist Samuel Courtauld was an ardent art collector who donated a wealth of works to The Courtauld Gallery upon co-founding it in 1932. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is not only one of several Manet works the London museum boasts, but also one of its most famous pieces.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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