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.