The Modern Woman: Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Griselda Pollock

Is modern life all it is cracked up to be? For nineteenth century painter Édouard Manet, there was a mismatch between the promise of excitement and the reality of living in a big city. In his last and perhaps greatest painting, he captures the bustling interior of one of the most prominent music halls of modern Paris, the Folies-Bergère. Amidst the chandeliers, champagne and chic crowd, you would expect all the characters of this scene to be having a sensational time: but the barmaid at its helm does not smile.

Manet was not alone in his quest to understand the sense of alienation in urban life. He was part of the first egalitarian art group, the Impressionists – with members including Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas – with whom he explored the essence of the modern condition. Pollock argues that Manet’s depiction of this despondent barmaid remains powerfully relevant today – we are urged to seek out pleasure with others, yet we often feel alone and disconnected. The vacant stare of his working woman reflects back to us from the canvas, almost as if it were a mirror.

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The Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a painting that raises the question, ‘why would Manet have painted it?’

The general argument is that it’s a painting where he’s trying to work out what is special about modern times in 1882. Paris is this place of radical change. He’s trying to work out what place, in all of the modern city, will really capture the essence of modernity. And so, he paints a barmaid.

And a barmaid is quite an unusual thing because up until now the people who waited on tables were men: waiters not waitresses so this is just about to come in, in the 1880s. But her face does not indicate that she’s smiling sweetly towards a customer – she looks incredibly bored or absent. I mean if you sit on a tube, loads of people about, but you’re isolated, you’re not connecting with the social world at that point. We have to do this, we have to close ourselves down in public, because we are so together with other people.

And Manet is exquisitely good at getting at that kind of non-expression, which is precisely what you’d observe. But there’s a disjunction, because he’s homing in on entertainment, on leisure. There’s going to be the chatter, there’s lots of champagne flowing and it’s the world of commodities, it’s the world of things that are going to be consumed in this glittering space. And in the centre of this painting, we have this strange, desolated disconnected figure.

So, although this painting was painted in 1882, it is just at the beginning of a world that many of us will now recognise – in our own sense of the fact that we go out and we’re meant to have so much fun but it never is what it promises to be. These new palaces of pleasure, they promise something that actually dissolves in your hand.

There’s some very interesting features in this painting. She’s wearing the most up to date dress, cinched in waist, very tight new corset. But her hands are un-gloved. Now, at that time, bourgeois ladies would always have worn gloves. When I looked very closely at these hands, I wondered if there was something significant that Manet was telling us because they are a working women’s hands. So, there’s this glamorous appearance, but she is different, she is someone at work, offering herself and this introduces a kind of sexual ambiguity. She appears just to be standing there looking at us, but in fact when we look, there’s a mirror behind her and there is the reflection of a man in a top hat who is buying a drink and the suggestion is he may be buying more than the drink. But then we try to match it to the reflection behind the barmaid and that doesn’t add up. Now, you can either say, ‘poor old Manet, couldn’t do perspective, got it all wrong!’. Or, he clearly produced this effect to unsettle us.

Something has happened to modern experience, where there isn’t a match. It’s contributing to the atmosphere he’s trying to create of ambiguity and doubt.

I always have this imagination, that people came into the studio and said you know, ‘Édouard, that’s amazing! That’s it!’. And he’d say, ‘What ‘it’?’. And they’d say, ‘We don’t know but you’ve sort of held something together…’

We kind of isolate the great artists and the great paintings but Manet takes his place in a community of artists for whom this question of modern life, modern experience is going to be explored through the café. So, you will find his colleague Degas focuses on the performers, but he also has an eye for people who are at the edges of society. More than anybody else Manet is looking to the Impressionist group, this first egalitarian art group in history.

Mary Cassatt, who was part of the Impressionist group, spent the 1870s looking at theatre. You’ll find a whole series of paintings, but the most famous one is exhibited in 1878 just exactly when Manet’s beginning his series, which has a woman looking through her opera glasses at the theatre, whilst in the background a man using his opera glasses is looking at her. Manet is acknowledging his conversation with her by placing just behind the barmaid a reference to Mary Cassatt.

So, they are very much in conversation, with trying to find this essence of modernity with his immediate contemporaries or even in fact his younger contemporaries.

The artists like George Seurat, who follows, says ‘I’m going to show you another step’, which is, the people having fun have turned into robots. It’s so not fun, they’re almost like mechanical dolls performing these rituals.

So, Manet is sort-of a punctuation point. But we have a problem with Manet, in terms of the significance of this painting in his life, because he dies aged 56 from syphilis. He dies almost immediately after the painting is completed. So, it is for us the last painting of Manet.

We as art historians are going to take it as a kind of distillation of a series of attempts to say ‘Where will I find the essence of modernity, what form in art must I give it? How many rules must I break to be able to convey something that’s absolutely going to capture the sense we have of living in modern times?’

With thanks to…

The Courtauld Gallery



Alamy Stock Photo
Art Institute of Chicago
Getty Images
Musée d’Orsay
Museum of the Fine Arts, Boston
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Philadelphia Museum of Art


Location Credit

Corbin & King Restaurants (Brasserie Zédel)



Original composition
Audio Network


Full List of Artworks:


A Bar at the Folies-Bergère
Eduard Manet, 1882
The Courtauld Gallery
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


EDOUARD MANET (1832-1883) French painter
Photo: Nadar
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo


The Eiffel Tower under construction, Paris, c.1888
The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo


La Place Saint Georges, Paris
Original painting by Edmond-Georges Grandjean in 1879
Photogravure Print from The Masterpieces of French Art by Louis Viardot
Published by Gravure Goupil et Cie, Paris, 1882, Gebbie & Co., Philadelphia, 1883
Glasshouse Images / Alamy Stock Photo


‘Sortie de l’Olympia’, a Paris, la nuit, par A. La Grange
Artist Unknown, late 1800s
ND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images


Le Hall Des Folies-Bergere, 1900
From Le Panorama – Paris la Nuit No. 1, Librairie D’Art – Ludovic Baschet editeur, Paris, 1900
Artist Unknown
The Print Collector/Getty Images


Parisian Nights, December 1888: Late Victorian eveningwear from Paris
Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Edouard Manet
From the portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1901
The Studio Volume 21 (London Offices of the Studio, London, 1900-1)
Print Collector/Getty Images


A workshop at the Batignolles
Henri Fantin-Latour, 1870
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images


In a Café
Edgar Degas, 1873
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski


MARY CASSATT (1845-1926). American painter
Photograph, 1914. / Granger / Bridgeman Images


Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge
Mary Cassatt, 1879
Bequest of Charlotte Dorrance Wright, 1978,
© 2011 Philadelphia Museum of Art. All rights reserved.


The Loge
Mary Cassatt, c.1878-1880
Chester Dale Collection,
National Gallery of Art, Washington


In the Loge
Mary Cassatt, 1878
The Hayden Collection – Charles Henry Hayden Fund
Museum of the Fine Arts, Boston


A Sunday on La Grande Jatte
George Seurat, 1884-1886
Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1926.224
Art Institute of Chicago


EDOUARD MANET (1832-1883)
Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo



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