(Courtauld Institute Galleries, London)

    There is nothing to stop the man in the top hat at the back of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party from catching the next train to Paris and alighting after a brief journey at the Gare St.-Lazare. There he could hire a carriage for the short ride to the Folies-Bergère, where he might fade into the blurry sea of top hats visible over the shoulder of the barmaid in Edouard Manet’s greatest late work. Painted about a year after Renoir’s masterpiece, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a vision of a different world. Both paintings show Parisians at play, but while Renoir’s diners can fit themselves into a tradition of pastoral pleasure immortalized in the paintings of Watteau, Manet’s people are in an ultramodern setting, a new place with new pleasures divorced from historical precedent. No longer on the outskirts, we are now in the interior of Paris, just a block from Haussmann’s Grand Boulevards, inside one of the new entertainment palaces. Here there is no Renoiresque sunlight, only the diffuse glow of crystal chandeliers and two round electric lights that hang in the background like artificial moons. But the most important and obvious difference between the two paintings is that Manet centers his composition on the very type of person excluded from Renoir’s vision: a worker, a member of the serving class. Manet knows that for one class to play, another must work.

    Like many other forms of leisure activity that emerged during the Second Empire–horse racing, sailing, large public parks–the Folies-Bergère was based on a British model, the great London music halls. It was a barn of a place, with a large ground floor overlooked by a horseshoe-shaped balcony. Onstage attractions included "circuses (with animals), acrobats, whole operettas, ballets, troupes of comedians, etc."1 But the most interesting action probably occurred offstage (hence Manet’s total elision of the stage and his reduction of the trapeze show to two legs comically cropped by the frame at top left). Along the promenades on the ground floor and at the back of the balcony, patrons could socialize, buy drinks at the bars, entertain clients or business partners, trade information, make appointments, arrange assignations. Art historians disagree about the social makeup of the Folies-Bergère’s clientele. Robert Herbert states convincingly that it was "quite dominated by the well-to-do...urbane writers, critics, collectors, painters, actors, demi-mondaines, and members of the Jockey Club,"2 while T.J. Clark quotes contemporary writers who describe a considerably more louche assortment of characters, one calling the Folies a "permanent fair for prostitutes."3 Although the historical reality of the place was probably somewhere in between, a comparison with a few earlier works by Manet suggests that his Folies is closer to Herbert’s more fashionable, higher-class place. There is certainly less class mixing here than in Manet’s two café scenes (now in London and Baltimore) in which a blue-smocked worker sits alongside a man whose hat implies a slightly higher class and an old man dressed to the nines shares a table with a rather dumpy-looking woman. The play of black top hats across the left background of Folies-Bergère reminds us instead of the respectable bourgeois crowd listening to Music in the Tuileries in Manet’s 1862 painting or the top-hatted revelers attending his 1873 Masked Ball at the Opera. The feet of the trapeze artist may even be a direct reference to the latter painting, in which a similarly cropped and shod leg teeters precariously on the edge of a balcony. Manet wants us to place this work not alongside his café paintings, two of which prominently feature waitresses, but in the company of his other scenes of higher class pleasure. For this final image of a serving woman, Manet moves up in the social world.

    And he takes the viewer with him. Manet puts us in the position of a bourgeois customer standing before a bar against the back wall of the Folies’ balcony. We simultaneously take in the spectacle of the place and the painting, the beauty of Manet’s loose yet precisely controlled brushwork and the mysterious, puzzling wit of his design. The gorgeous still life on the bar frames the figure of Suzon, an actual barmaid at the Folies-Bergère who posed for Manet. Directly behind her, a large, smoky mirror reflects what is directly behind us: the opposite side of the balcony, with its own large mirrors reflecting the chandeliers and electric lights to create an illusion of deep space. To the right, we see the reflection of a customer who must–impossibly–be standing in our position, in front of Suzon. He both must be and cannot be the viewer. (Unless the viewer affects the appearance of a nineteenth-century Parisian dandy–in which case: Bravo.) As I stand where he is standing, I consider the fact that most of this painting depicts a reflection, an illusion of depth on a flat mirror made out of glass. And I note that the work is filled with different colors and textures and types of glass, from the dark, smooth solidity of the bottles to the ‘barely there’ transparency of the vase on the bar, from the cut crystal chandelier to the rhyming crystal compote heavy with oranges to the green bottle that picks up the color of the distant trapeze artist’s tiny shoes. All of these glass items are manufactured, artificial things, and standing among them, dominating them, is the figure of Suzon. She alone seems fully human; she alone is flesh and blood. Despite the reflected crowd behind her, despite the proximity of the man in front, she stands alone, isolated, the only ‘real’ person in the painting.

    Ever since A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was first exhibited at the 1882 Salon, critics have noted the unexplained discrepancies between the mirror reflection and the foreground reality. Although the mirror appears to lie flat against the wall, parallel to the picture plane, the reflections of Suzon and her customer–which should logically be directly behind her–are shifted to the right. Suzon’s reflection also appears to be leaning at more of an angle over the bar, closer and more attentive to her customer than Suzon is to us. Of all the objects visible on the bar, only two can be seen in reflection, and they are fragmented and barely recognizable. A part of the flower is visible in the mirror at the extreme right edge, near the barmaid’s cuff, but the group of bottles reflected at left cannot be the same bottles we see in the left foreground. While they look teasingly similar, the reflected bottles are much too close to the forward edge of the bar. The foreground bottles must be those visible in the mirror between Suzon’s right arm and waist. Fragmentation makes the reflection difficult to recognize, and Manet compounds this difficulty by rhyming the reflected bottle’s dark glass with the dark space between arm and waist on the other side of Suzon’s body–a witty act of painterly camouflage. We also notice that these reflected bottles are shifted too far to the left, about two feet away from the reflection of Suzon’s hand, which almost touches them in reality. What is going on here?

    I think we can safely dismiss the answer given by critics in 1882: that the ‘incorrectness’ of Manet’s reflection is a colossal mistake, a glaring example of artistic carelessness. Not likely. Everything about this painting is perfectly deliberate; the displacements in the mirror look as carefully calculated as the highlights on those oranges in the bowl. The key to a better answer lies right before our eyes, in the foreground of the painting. Look at those four gold-foiled bottles at left and note how Manet arranges them so that they seem to mirror each other, as if a mirror passes impossibly behind the forward two bottles, and the back bottles are their reflections. (At first glance, we might even read the rear bottles as a reflection in the mirror on the wall.) Even more strangely, another imaginary mirror seems to pass between the bottles from front to back, making the two on the left look almost like reflections of those on the right. We should also note that the glass with flowers, which should be the fulcrum of the bartop still life, has been moved off-center to the right and that Suzon is similarly off-center with respect to the symmetrical patches of wall and the electric lights in the reflected background. My point here is that the same doublings and displacements we associate with the mirror are present in the painting’s ‘reality.’ Upon entering the Folies-Bergère, we pass through the looking glass into a world where everything is uncertain, shifting, where even identity is in play. Any one of those anonymous top-hatted men in the background might have spent the earlier part of this day at Renoir’s Chatou dressed in the white shirt and straw hat of a boating enthusiast. Or he might have spent the day in a stifling Parisian office, supervising a group of clerks as they checked ledgers and balanced accounts. The customer at right might be a wealthy member of the Jockey Club, or he might be a fallen Bonapartist wearing his only good suit. He might also be a successful Salon painter accustomed to struggling with canvases many times the size of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Similarly, the women in the background might be respectable wives enjoying the show with their husbands or high-class prostitutes accompanying their wealthy johns. We simply can’t tell. Despite appearances, then, Manet’s mirror does not lie. It is an accurate reflection of a place where appearances can be extremely deceptive.

    Suzon is at work in this place of play. Appropriately, she appears harder, more solid than the other people. They are like the shadows in Plato’s cave, as insubstantial as smoke; she is reality, as tangible as the marble countertop. Any attempt to deconstruct the painting, to see the discrepancies in the mirror as Magritte-like signs of unreality and argue that the entire work is an unreal, flat, constructed thing (all true, of course, but beside the point), will inevitably crash against the strange solidity of Suzon. Like the crystalline precipitate of a chemical reaction, she resists dissolution, and this fact points to her place in the social hierarchy of the Folies-Bergère. For unlike the bourgeois patrons, Suzon is not permitted to shift roles, to play with identities. She is a barmaid, and a barmaid she must remain. I am reminded of a great passage in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness where he discusses the job-related identities society forces upon the lower classes. Since Sartre’s book is more often purchased than read, I will quote the passage at length:

...there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into a soldier-thing with a direct regard which does not see at all, which is no longer meant to see, since it is the rule and not the interest of the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (the sight "fixed at ten paces"). There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.4

For the pleasure of her customers, Suzon must harden herself into her role. She must become robotic, almost inanimate, a thing among things. This is why Manet integrates her form into the foreground still life. She is the large object that joins the two separated halves of the composition; she provides the dark accent against which the flowers and oranges shine out more brilliantly. When Renoir placed two women near the still life in the Boating Party, his object was to display their decorative beauty; Manet has a darker motive. He wants us to see Suzon as a frozen thing, as fixed into position as the bottles on the bar.

    Manet’s Folies-Bergère is a microcosm of the class structure of bourgeois society. The lower classes are fixed in their work roles so the higher classes can play, moving with relative freedom along the social scale. Workers are encouraged to internalize elements of bourgeois ideology (the Protestant work ethic, ‘rags to riches’ stories, etc.) designed to keep them working as hard–and thinking as little–as possible, freezing them in their social place and forestalling revolution. Reflecting this social structure, Manet’s painting is a system of confinement for Suzon. She is trapped in the narrow space behind the bar, which is literally a ‘bar,’ a barrier that moves unbroken across the entire length of the foreground. Only in the mirror is the end of the bar visible, implying–given the longstanding association of mirrors with illusion–that Suzon’s only escape must be an imaginary one, a retreat into a place in her mind far from the tedium of work. We should also note that she is cinched into a corset that constrains and defines her body as tightly as her social position constrains and defines her expressions. The corset, as well as the flower that both conceals and draws attention to her unseen cleavage, is designed to attract male eyes–customers who will spend their money at her bar. The gentleman in the mirror has been so attracted, and the fact that Suzon’s reflection bows down to him marks him as a representative of the bourgeois (and male) power structure. Every servant implies a master.

    Interestingly, Manet does not exclude himself from this system of domination. His painterly style shows his hand on every inch of the canvas, making it impossible for us to ignore the wealthy bourgeois artist who created this image of an urban worker, using a working class model for his own artistic ends. Thinking about Manet’s physical work as a painter may help us understand one of the painting’s persistent mysteries: the significance of Suzon’s blank expression. Manet painted her in his studio, posing her behind a marble table on which the still life elements were arranged. My theory is that her empty gaze is the blank expression of an inexperienced model posing for a painter, frozen into position for who knows how many minutes at a time while Manet worked at the easel. She appears to be looking at nothing because she in fact is looking at ‘nothing,’ or nothing of interest, anyway–just whatever contents of the artist’s studio might have been in her line of sight. Of course, this is a theory of the origin of her expression, not its meaning. Manet could have painted any expression on her face (he could have made her look like the Joker from Batman, if that had been his inclination), but in taking this studio gaze and transferring it to the gaiety of the Folies-Bergère, Manet deepened the mystery and meaning of the work. The understandably bored stare of the model becomes the mysteriously deadened expression of the worker in a pleasure palace.

    Manet’s meaning-producing hand is also implied by the vase of flowers on the counter. This belongs to the painter’s late series of small flower still lifes, some of which are also positioned on this same marble tabletop. In those works, the dark or neutral backgrounds and the obvious funereal associations of cut flowers can be seen as a symbol of Manet’s own intimations of physical decline and approaching death. In Folies-Bergère the vase’s passage from the light gray bar to Suzon’s dark dress contains a similar suggestion of the passage from life to death. And the Manet flower Suzon wears upon her breast cements her association with this group of paintings. All of these cut flowers are beautiful dying things, symbols of death-in-life, cut off at the stem from their life-giving roots but continuing to flower attractively, to counterfeit life. The flowers on the bar are yet another illusion in Manet’s hall of mirrors. They remind us that the French term for still life (as every writer on the genre tiresomely repeats) is nature morte, ‘dead nature.’ Suzon’s association with these flowers hints that something inside her has died, that the necessity of freezing into an assigned role has drained a part of her life away. She is not bored; she is dehumanized.

    The splashes of color provided by her flowers should not distract us from the somber tones of Suzon’s dress. The gray and blue-black palette used here and the brushwork on the lace around her collar are reminiscent of Manet’s beloved Velasquez, and once we have made that connection, we begin to see other interesting ways in which Manet evokes the great Spanish master. For A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is Manet’s modern answer to Velasquez’s own late masterpiece, Las Meninas. The relationship between the two paintings is not as direct as that which binds Manet’s Olympia to Titian’s Venus of Urbino; the connection here is more conceptual, a matter of the use of mirrors, the prominence granted to gazes and–most obviously–the reflected images of people who appear to be standing in the viewer’s position. But Velasquez’s orderly, monarchical world is centuries away from Manet’s disordered, fragmented, shifting one. Perhaps the most startling disparity lies in the glances directed outward by the two paintings’ central figures. Where Velasquez centers his complex array of gazes on a young princess looking familiarly at her royal parents, Manet confronts us with the masked stare of a barmaid looking at her customer–or, more correctly, looking toward the customer (recall Sartre’s soldier with his "direct regard which does not see at all"). Suzon’s gaze makes no connection. In the modern world of the Folies-Bergère, the affective lines that join human beings have been severed and replaced by the exchange of money and merchandise. Emotions must either be deadened or made entertaining, exaggerated into comedy or melodrama to become part of the show, safely contained onstage. It is fitting that America’s best social historian of art, Robert Herbert, divides his discussion of Impressionist cafe-concert and music hall paintings into ‘Women who Serve’ and ‘Women who Perform.’ Those are indeed the choices, the two permissible working class roles in bourgeois leisure.

    It takes a tremendous amount of energy to repress all genuine human emotions, to turn one’s face into a blank mask, to turn oneself into a still life. It requires effort; it’s the hardest part of Suzon’s job. To completely inhabit the role of barmaid, Suzon must eliminate all other possible roles, all other possibilities, from her life. This job is her life. And in a deep psychological way, it is also her death. Can capitalism kill the soul? If by ‘soul’ we mean our inwardness, our interior complex of thoughts, wishes, desires, then this painting’s answer is ‘yes.’ Suzon is dying inside, becoming dehumanized, a thing like all those other objects arranged across the counter for our delectation. And we do delight in it–all of it. Manet was a master ironist, and the final irony of his life lies in the beauty of this painting. The artist lures us in with beauty and then springs his trap with Suzon’s blank stare. This painting is his last great move and his final nasty trick. It is a beautiful image of the death of the soul.

1. Herbert, Impressionism, 79.

2. Ibid., 80.

3. Clark, Painting of Modern Life, 245.

4. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 102.