Manet enters the Bar, or Bricolage of the hollow mirrors

My previous posting opens with the Venus of Urbino, yet tells not about that painting, but about cassone (and then mirrors); if I follow this suite, this posting also shouldn’t be about Monet’s Olimpia (also a mirror-less painting), but eventually lead to some interesting mirrors.

This is exactly what will happen.

However, this the connection could seem to be fairly sinuous (though that’s true for everything in this blog anyway.) The story started in the same Courtauld Gallery where I found the chest, and where I also bumped, rather suddenly for me, at the famous mirror by Édouard Manet:

From this moment on the story went straight, as in Why didn’t I tell this before? OMG, I need to write about this work RIGHT NOW!

(To avoid further confusion, the painting I started *this* posting with is not by Manet; it’s called Collaborative Fiction (2008), by some Mark Lang.)

Below IS the painting by Manet, in full totality, even with the frame (every time how all these ‘modernist’ paintings are embedded in the unbelievably posh an classical frames, I writhes from ‘aesthetic pain’, so to speak).

The official name of the painting is Un bar aux Folies Bergère, or A bar in Folies Bergère; this is a mega-famous pice of art (to start with, it even has its own wikipedia page – that in addition to a few books and documentaries exploring in depth this very painting only, in addition to a large volume of publications about Manet and his art in general.)  I always experience a petrifying feeling, of ‘Why on Earth should I write any more lines about the piece, described so far and so wide already?’ At the same time, I can’t leave this blog without having the postings about famous ‘mirror blockbusters’ of that kind, so need to at least ‘tick the box’.

It just happened so that this painting was also one of the last ones created by Édouard Manet; he painted it in the beginning of 1882 (he even managed to submit it to Salon of this year), but in April 1883 he died, very painfully, from syphilis that caused tabes dorsalis and gangrene (his leg was amputated soon before his death.)  When imagining all this tragic and painful context, the painting is also seen very differently, as if it bears a special message to us, the descendants (even though it doesn’t.)

It is therefore very tempting to start the story backward, from this last painting to the earlier works (and earlier mirrors). Ideally, I could even start from the contemporary remakes of this painting, and glide back through time:

But I will cope with this temptation, and tell the story in a mode conventional way (I will add a few remakes at the end). Although when I say ‘conventional’, this also doesn’t’ mean ‘simple and easy’, the amount of stuff already written leaves no chances to write a short, straightforward account, and instead the story quickly blows into a large multifaceted balloon (do balloons have facets?)  Bueh.

Speaking about the ‘balloons’, I actually tend to consider Manet as the example of one of those (and not only in terms of ‘mirrors-in-art’, but in general, too). I also believe that he didn’t add much new to art – neither in terms of technique, nor in term of ‘conceptuality’ or any other facet (for instance, sociological or psychological, whatever that means).

Now,  who is me to tall this Herostratian mesasge? Compared to the thousands and thousands of professionals who grant the highest accolade to his French master? Whose name and whose works are literally embedded into the history of art?


Michel Foucault considered Manet the founder of the ‘modern take’ on visual art, and Pierre Bourdieu argued that Manet has started – and won – une révolution symbolique, leaving behind not only academic classicism, but newly emerging impressionism as well.

And most importantly, leaving all these theoreticians aside, it is the Big Money that talk. When a year or so ago a tiny sheet of paper (just a big bigger than A5) with a short note written by Manet and a draft pencil study of the ‘three plums’ has been sold for $US 1,265,000 (!) , well, a very few people would be willing to listen to anyone saying that this guy was a ‘bad painter’:

Édouard Manet – Troes Prunes (Header of the letter signed ‘Ed. Manet’ and dated 8 oct. 1880.)

When I write about the ‘Manet’s balloon’, I don’t want to say, of course, that his was completely ‘nothing and nobody’ in the world of art; there is no smoke without flame, as they say. But what I see is a rather typical decontextualization, tearing his works from both artistic and social landscape of his time, and thus misunderstanding (and misjudging them).

I put only a few names on that collage bellow (Ingres, Delacroix, Corot – and that not even counting many impressionist painters later), but even they show that the art has been evolving and transforming very dramatically at that time, and Manet was only a relatively small brushstrike in this panorama.

And here I am talking only about France, but we have also have England, for example, where Turner alone has achieved so much that all the talks about the originality of Manet’s technique or composition are groundless.  And the mirrors of Manet are reflecting this situation in the best way.

But as I said, I decided to follow a more conventional scheme and write this posting in a typical ‘pseudo-psychoanalytical’ manner (my first posting of this kind, about Degas, is still one of the most widely read in this blog.)  I assume that some basic facts are more or less known (at least, at the wikipedia article level), and go through them very quickly, to spend more time on the mirrors themselves.)

Manet was born in 1832, in Paris; in 1848, when he was 16, the city went through what we call now the second French revolution. The picture above is already a photograph, showing the barricades on the street.

A very telling image, not only because of the barricades we see, but also because we see them *photographed*!  It’s one case when we see the depictions of the historical events in the paintings (look, for examples, at the painting by Henri Félix Philippoteaux (with a long and factual title “Lamartine, before the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, rejects the Red Flag, on February 25, 1848″):

It is, of course, a very different story when when see the same street *for real* – not heroic, not staged, missing all these epic and epochal qualities, yet conveying a much more powerful and immersive feeling of the event.

Interesting, but this revolutionary events also made a striking (though short-lived) impact on one of the establishments that will become very important for Manet: I am talking the Salon, the main art event of France, and for many years, of Europe (and the world, too).

 Le Salon is one of events of most deeply embedded in French cultural life; it had been officially initiated by the cardinal Mazarin, in 1648, but became more regular only from 1725 one.  Still, by the time of Manet it has more than a century-long history and established rules. Every year 2500 art worked were selected by a highly reputed members of the French Academy, to be finally approved by the king (and since Napoleon, by the emperor) himself. To get exhibited in the Salon was the ultimate goal for any artist, a ‘royal stamp’ of approval of the quality of work, and also a prerequisite of commercial success. It was also a pivotal event of Paris’ cultural life

(This is the work not by Manet, but by some François-Auguste Biard – Paris Salon, Grande Galerie (с.1840)

But in 1848 the Salon was flow was disrupted; the even was obviously framed as too ‘royalist’, and not ‘democratic’. Initially the Salon was cancelled, but later allowed, thought with much different rules: the selection process was abandoned, and basically all the submitted works had been accepted and displayed (not only immediately lowering the average quality of the works, but also making the event much more messy).  Later the rules had been re-installed, but it’s interesting and somewhat symbolic that Manet has experienced such an ‘art disruption’ earlier in his life. Later he himself will disrupting the Salons, repeatedly.

Similar to Degas, Manet was born in a wealthy family (though, perhaps, not aristocratic); his father was a high-ranked official in the Ministry of Justice, and the mother was a daughter of the French Ambassador to Sweden.) This is their portrait painted by Manet later in 1860 (by the way, it will become one of the first works of him accepted to the Salon):

Édouard was the first child of the couple, born in 1832, a year after their marriage. He was obviously received all the opportunities to gain good education, first through private teachers, and then in the Collège Rollin. His father assumed that the son will follow his career of lawyer, but apparently Édouard thought differently; first, he didn’t actually studied that well, and also he got interested in painting, relatively earlier in life.

This interested was noticed, and endorsed by Edouard Fournier, his uncle and himself a painter, who started to take the boy to the Louvre where he was able to copy the works of the old masters.  At some point Édouard Manet began to thin of the life of artist, the choice his father was always flatly against.  Instead of art school, Manet was sent to Le Royale, the French Navy Academy, but he failed the exams. To prepare him better for the next year’s exams he was sent to a sea voyage to Brazil (!) where he returned from being completely overwhelmed by its colourful visual beauty (more than ten percept of his works will be about sea and water in general, and I now I understand why.)

Below are a couple of examples of his marine works, though not from this Brazilian trip:

Battle of U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” (1864)

Fishing boat coming in before the wind (1864)

Anyway, he failed the tests again, but this time his father, and especially when he saw the drawings made by Manet during his travel, approved the private art lessons and also attendance of the art studio of Thomas Couture, a relatively well known artist at that time.  Manet wasn’t an especially diligent student of art either, at some point he scandalously left the workshop of  couture, and his father had to intervene to douse the fire. Manet returned, but still considered his self-studies more important way of learning the art craft.

In 1850-52 he travelled through Europe, but he had made an interesting choice; instead of Italy, a preferred destination for many young artists, he went to the Netherlands where he studied the works of Frans Hals (just for the record, Hals never painted any mirrors), and then travelled to Germany and Austria (Bohemia). These are all very unusual choices, and I guess they had been influenced by one master who made a grand impact on Manet, Eugène Delacroix.

In 1855 Manet finally meets his idol, in Paris, and shows some of his works – as well as asks a permission to copy one of the famous painting by Delacroix, so called Dante’s Barque.  This is what Manet managed to produce:

To compare, this is the original:

The 1859 is a very important year for Manet. He is already 27, and already for years he is a member of a circle of painters formed around Delacroix, yet he didn’t achieve much himself.  Again, the key measure of success would be a work accepted to the Salon, and so Manet finally submit one of the painting, so called Absinthe Drinker.

The work is not accepted, despite it was support by the very Delacroix, which is a serious blow for Manet. How it is usually explained now is that the work was refused because it depicts the ‘societal issue’ (as in ‘showing the drunkard’).  I am afraid it’s a post-rationalisation, based on a wrong premise.   It is, actually, a very weak work, missing on so many points that one has to only agree with the committee (among many other things I can only point to the way he depicted glass, and reflection in it – badly):

However, the very appearance of this line of defence is very interesting.

It known that Manet tried to paint this figure many times – there are some earlier studies, where we see no ‘social issues’:

As well to introduce the same figure in another paniting:

Similar to the young Degas, Manet was also criticised for the (lack of) composition in his works. For example, the one above is not even one work, it’s a compilation of loosely, nearly arbitrary placed elements, totally out of sync with each other. You can easily change the positions of every element here, swap them or even delete, the result will be roughly the same; it’s only in your imagination they create a ‘scene’.

Compare it with a similarly unaligned composition of Degas, his War in the Middle Ages:

By the way, they met, Degas and Manet, in the Louvre, and were close to each other for many years – that is, until Degas finally quarrelled with Manet too (as he did eventually with nearly all his friends.)

Back to the Drunkard – it was a poor work just as a Figure of a Man’, but my guess is that at some point Manet makes a decision to make to ‘stronger’ by adding politically incorrect message – to also have a chance to criticise the critics later, if the work is not accepted!

Such description is inevitable very simplistic, and thus may sound very vulgar; I also don’t think that Manet was making a plot to ‘outsmart’ his critics, by adding an ideological weight to his paintings. Rather, this dimension, of ‘neutral art’ vs ‘politicised art’, become very prominent at this time (and in this place), so the artists had to choose sides, even if unconsciously. But to be honest, I’d would love to read bit more about those times in France, and how these issues had been discussed, for instance, in the media.

Below is another example of Manet’s earlier works, the so called ‘Spanish Ballet’ (1862). The Spanish theme is not a refelction of of his own experience of this country, and its culture, rather it’s a homage to the works of Velázquez and Francisco Goya that he admired.

This ‘Spanish focus’ has eventually helped Manet to get to the Salon, two of this portraits are accepted, the parents’ portrait I have already shown, and the Spanish Guitar Player:

The first painting had not been received particularly well, which disappointed Manet (also because his father was already quick sick, he got a stroke earlier, and Manet expected to give him a pleasant news.) But the second work has even received a medal, as if signalling a long-waited blast-off of his artistic career.

It worth mentioning here that Manet always was, and remained to be, a classical studio painter. He was consistently critical to the classical academic paintings, yet followed the most classical way of working himself. Even when he began to do some ‘outdoor’ works, he was actually producing them entirely in this studio, only occasionally doing some sketches outside of it (again, very similar to Degas.)

Below is his first really large outdoor painting, the so called Music in the Tuileries Garden 1862).

The lady in a coif resembles his mother, and the gentleman with monocle could be Manet himself, but it’s difficult to say it with any certainty, also because the faces on this work remain to be very schematic. And again, there are not efforts to make the scene it realistic, in any academic sense of this worlds; Manet is often presented as a forerunner of impressionism, but if to choose any -ism, then expressionism would be a much closer ‘neighbourhood’:

The works that made Manet really famous, both in his own time, and eventually in art history in general, are both very scandalous. They have not been any breakthroughs in terms of technique or style, but definitely challenged the boundaries of what art should or shouldn’t depict.

The first if of course his Olympia, painted in 1963 but displayed at the Salon in 1865.  At the first glance, it is just an allusion to many similar ‘reclining nudes‘, a well established genre since the Renaissance time (of one such work, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, I wrote recently).

The second work is no less famous (and not less notoriously so) Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862-63)

Both works have caused an uproar, from the art critics and general public alike. Interestingly, but the Breakfast was considered even more ‘indecent’ at that time than completely naked Olympia.  The former work is not even expressionistic, it’s deeply surrealistic work, and using today’s art-speak we can call it post-modernist too.  I guess for the viewers in the 1860s it was as insulting and non-artistic as the works by Basquiat in the 1980s:

Similar to the Warhol’s favorite, the Breakfast explicitly violates the art norms of its time; all possible proportions are broken here, the very concept of perspective is simply cancelled, there is not light or space here. It is as bizarre and physically impossible as the visions we sometimes have in our dreams. The same goes for its content, so to speak, it is an impossible scene to happen in real life. It’s not even a scene, all the elements here are totally autonomous and self-containing, and there are really no connections between them (and if you see those, treat them as your own projections).

Even the title of this painting is completely arbitrary – the earlier version of its name was Le Bain, the Bath, but it could be really anything (see the earlier case with the Drinker.) Not surprisingly, this work is a subject of endless remakes and ‘homages’, and the width – and the wildness – of them confirms that the initial work is deeply haphazard (I could compare it with the Belle Gabrielle, that demonstrates the same non-sense-ness – or perhaps our inability to decode its true sense.)

It is widely believed that the Manet’s contemporaries had been insulted no so much by the nudity of the women, and not even by the juxtaposition of properly dressed men with the naked women, but by the fact they all try to behave as of the situation is perfect normal. When I write that it’s a surreal work, I also mean a very particular type of surreality, the Kafkian one, when a totally absurd world insists to be treated as the most normal one.

Another popular explanation of the scandal caused by these works is that Manet had depicted courtesans (this reasoning is especially present in case of Olympia):

But similar interpretation is often suggested for the Breakfast (sometimes nicknamed as the Picnic):

I would leave all theses debates aside for a moment; what is more important is the very fact of such a sudden intervention of the socio-political dimension into the domain of art discussion, not the details.

Speaking about the details, we actually know the model who was sitting for the these (and for many other) works by Manet; her name is Victorine Louise Meurent, and she also became a painter some years later. Manet first met with her in the studio of Couture, and we find her portraits among the earliest works by Manet; we even had her photographs – I don’t know for sure, but this one could have be made by Nadar, who later will also make the most famous portrait of Manet himself.

This is one of the earliest studies for Olympia, a small drawing showing her bright red hairs (and it’s also visible that initially she was not looking strait at the viewer’s eyes, the details that caused a particular criticism in the final work.)

But in any case, even though she was not from the same social circles as Manet and many of his friends, she was not a courtesan (this doesn’t exclude, of course, that she couldn’t sit for this role).  I am touching all these issues, of the origin, and belonging to a certain social group exactly because they suddenly became very prominent in many art discussions of that time.  The role of a Woman, the impact of a Social Class – these are all very important considerations for Manet (ok, they are important ones for any artist, but this case I mean that they become explicit themes that are played out in his works.)

The cross-section of these two themes, of Woman, and of Social Class, also made a huge impact on the Manet’s personal life, too.  Here I need to move back in time, to 1851, when Manet is only 19 years old. His father is hiring a young teacher of music for Édouard and his younger brother, some Suzanne Leenhoff (although other sources say that she was giving lessons to the Manet’s son already in 1949, when she was herself only 20 years old.

This story is begging to be filmed (or at least presented as a dramatic novel); I can’t understand why it hasn’t already happened.

Suzanne’s father served as church musician in the Dutch town Zaltbommel – it may well be that he was performing in this very church:

The town is located not far from the A2 highway, near the river Vaal, and I bet we saw it hundred time when driving by, and being amused by the strange shape of this church, I was planning to stop by, time and again. Never happened, yet.

The person who did stop in the town, and also visited the church was Franz Liszt, Hungarian composer who was travelling from Bonn to London. Liszt was impressed by the youngest daughter’s play on carillon that not he advised her to go to Paris to learn music, but also suggested a few students whom she could give lessons, this covering her accommodation costs.

That’s how the Dutch family of Leenhoff found itself in Paris; two of her brother also came to the city, together with another sister and Suzanne’s grandmother (one of her brothers, Ferdinand, will later become a sculptor, and another one, Rudolf, a painter.)

In 1852 Suzanne gives birth to her first son, Leon; she is not married at this moment, and the name of the boy’s father in the birth certificate is Koel (most likely, completely fictional one).  The majority of researchers suggest that the real father was Édouard Manet (though some propose another candidate, 55-years old Auguste Manet, the painter’s father).

It’s not clear when Suzanne and Manet Jr. started their relationships, since they had to hide it for many years from their family, especially from the father, but from the mid-1850s they became an open secret.  When Auguste Manet was alive, they couldn’t even dream about official marriage, this could be a scandalous misalliance, but life together in a semi-secret family was already not so exceptional at that time.

From about the same time, the mid-1850s, Suzanne also started to sit for Manet; perhaps, even earlier, but we don’t have any work earlier than 1855:

In 1861 Suzanne is a model for a pretty revealing Nymph:

Interestingly, but if Manet would submit this work to the Salon, it may well be that it could be accepted; I doubt, because I personally thing it’s a very weak, student work, but in any case, it wouldn’t violate any moral norms.

Moreover, Manet also painted the portraits of the boy, or more precisely, also used him as a model for his works – like in this Boy with a Tray (1859):

Or in this Boy with a Sword (1861), made in his early Spanish manner:

Édouard Manet and Suzanne Leenhoff could marry only in 1863, after the death of the Manet’s father, and even then they had to travel to the Netherlands and conduct the matrimonial ceremony in secret. Leon remained to be their only child, but for years he was presented as Suzanne’s brother who came from the Netherlands.

Here is a much later portrait of her, made in 1869; she is already Suzanne Manet (and the figure on the right is Leon, her brother-son).

Suzanne continues to play, she had her own salon, allegedly very popular among the artists and musicians in Paris of that time:

We even have her photographs:


Here comes the time to introduce the first mirror by Manet, painted on of the portraits of his wife, playing piano (1868).

I have to admit that I myself not completely sure if this is a mirror or not. I first thought it’s a piece of a mantel mirror, but it could also be another mirror hanging on a wall that reflects the mantel mirror:

Another option is that it could be just a painting, however, my understanding the history of art/design says that frames of the paintings were more decorative.

But even if it’s a mirror, similar to the Bellelli Family by Degas we are left with the guesses whether this depicted mirror is depicted only as an element of interior, or it carries a certain (symbolic?) meaning.

Perhaps, this ‘mirror’ has its own skeleton in it; it’s know that around this time Degas made anther portrait of Manet and his wife:

We see that that right side of the painting is missing – exactly the one that could have helped to solve the puzzle of the first mirror of Manet. Alas, apparently Manet has teared off this piece himself, and insulted Degas who was planning to give this portrait to the family of Manet, took it away; he even had plans to reconstruct this work, but it has often been with his plans, they didn’t materialised.

All these semi-legendary rumours  may seem to be missing any ‘added value’ to my mirror-in-art-story. On the other hand, I have a feeling that it’s impossible to understand the true meaning of artwork (and to appreciate the process of art production) without learning more about all these doings and gatherings, who often create the very sense of art (and of the mirrors-in-art too).

I was showing this painting by Frédéric Bazille when talking about Degas; we see here a typical moment in life of a Paris studio of that time (in this case, an example of the studio by Bazille himself, that he shared with Renoir).  The man with a cane and bowler hat standing in front of the painting is Édouard Manet.

Painting each other is what they did all that, the artists of the ‘circle of Delacroix’, a loosely defined group of painters who shared a somewhat anti-establishment (or at least anti-Academy) attitude. Here is yet another group selfie painted by Henri Fantin-Latour in 1863, a year after the death of their beloved guru;  red-haired Manet is to the right of the portrait of Delacroix.

Few years later the same Fantin will paint another group portrait, this time already centered around Manet himself:

Was he really a leader of the pack? Or was a wishful thinking of Manet, and perhaps of a certain small group of artists and intellectuals who wanted to present him as the new ‘thought leader’? It’s very difficult for me to comment on this issues, I read very contradictory opinions, and need to lear more about this situation. From what I read so far, I sense that there were a lot of people who were very critical about his art, and these views were not only of the ‘conservative Academy’.  I feel that that the situation is much more complex that it is currently portrayed (as is ‘Retard Academy’ vis-a-vis ‘Progressive Artist’).

As I discover, a lot of no less innovative and progressive artists were very sceptical about Manet, and his craft, considering him, and his group of fans playing the ‘New Emperors Clothes’ game:

(NB: I am afraid, my French doesn’t I can’t get the full meaning of the this French play of words; Manet is presented as the omnipotent Balthazar, the Prince of Babylon, who has seen the ‘writings on the wall’. The most common version of these enegmatic writings that appeared during the feast with his court is “MeneMene, Tekel, Upharsin“, but there are also many alterations, including “Mane, Tekel, Fares“. I suppose this French cartoon is playing with the latter, transferring it into “Manet, T’es sel Thecel, Phare est ce“, but I can’t decode the exact meaning; see above my notes about the need to better understand the surrounding social circles to extract the true meaning of the artefacts, and events.)

Now, following this tangent, about ‘social circles’, this is also the place where Manet met Berthe Morisot, of the few French female painters who was active at this time and who contributed to the emerging movement of Impressionism. As many other women, she couldn’t attend the Academy, and learned the craft of painting through self-studies and private lessons, including of the genius Corot.

When Manet and Morisot met first time in 1867, she was nine years younger than Manet, but already a very established painter; for example, her works had been accepted more often to the Salon than ones by Manet. Nevertheless, he took a very patronage position towards her, advising and ‘approving’ her works. According to the (unwritten) rules of the time, women were supposed to paint peaceful landscapes and pretty portraits (and Morisot made a good share of those), by Manet started to call her to approach the ‘social issues’.

In any case, eventually they developed a quite close professional friendship (it’s not known if it went any further, although there are allegations hinting in this direction.) What is known for sure is that Manet made many portraits of Morisot (interestingly, she didn’t any of him.)

One of the first work where she is depicted is the famous Balcony (1868/69); Morisot here sits, and the woman standing next to her is some Fanny Claus (it’s known she was extremely unhappy with the painting, complaining that Manet portrayed her in an extremely ugly way.) The man standing behind her is Antoine Guillemet, a friend of Manet and also a painter, by now almost forgotten. Interestingly, but the model for the figure of another man, in a background, is the same Leon, the ‘son/brother’.

There is a very interesting article about this painting in the Masterpieces in Detail, that provides a lot of non-obvious background details about this work, but they don’t directly relate to my ‘mirror saga’, so I have to omit them. Just to note, the painting is much more ‘loaded’ with social criticism then it may look at the first glance; may be not as much ‘to your face’ as the Luncheon, but it’s far from being neutral piece of art, either.

Not surprisingly that it was enacted again by Magritte, in his typical surrealistic manner:

I will show a couple of more portraits of Morisot by Manet – the most famous is, perhaps, this Femme fatal:

and another one, so called Lady with a Pink Shoe:


Here is perhaps the right moment to show another ‘mirror’ by Manet; and not one, but two!

In 1876 Manet creates this lovely ‘Woman in front of a Mirror‘ (Femme devant le miroir):

It’s a very non-typical work for Manet, style-wise and in terms of brush-stroke. It is also very enigmatic one, since we can’t say for sure who is depicted here.  Morisot again? or his older red-haired  ‘Olympia’? or his wife Suzanne? or perhaps his future model, also Suzan, whom we will later see in the Bar?  It’s also not clear why Manet created this portrait, and what ‘social issues’ it addresses – most of the Manet’s paintings do have very clear ‘message’.

What is known, however, that one year before that Morisot mades her own Femme et sa toilette (1875)

Contrary to Manet, this is a very typical work for Morison, very much in line with her previous paintings. It may look like Manet – well, not stolen, of course, but ‘borrowed’ this painting from Morisot, copying both the subject and the style. Today we call such things ‘appropriations’.

Whatever the label, the impact of Morisot’s mirror on the one by Manet is self-evident:

A year later, in 1876, Morisot creates her next ‘mirror’, so called Psyche:

(For the record: another title for the painting is Cheval Glass, literally ‘Horse Mirror’; this was the name for the mirrors of a very special design of the frame, allowing the mirror surface to swing):

One more year, and Manet creates his famous Nana (1877)

Most people see in this work its ‘social message’, an explicit depiction of the tabooed theme of prostitution (this makes the work close to the notoriously famous Olympia): we see the client who came to visit the young Parisian courtesan, portrayed half-dressed and shamelessly looking at the viewers.

The resonance of this painting was so high that when three years later Zola would write his famous novel also called Nana (1880), it was clear that the title refers to this painting by Manet.

The impact of Zola’s ‘social realism’ (or ‘social naturalism’) is very vivid (though the opposite is also true); I guess in this case we need to talk about a certain zeitgeist, a set of ideas that gained traction in French (and broader, European) society at that time.  The very fact that a certain ideology makes an impact on art (whether verbal or visual) is nothing new, and the issue is perhaps in the quality, and complexity of these ideas.  I am afraid in this case the ideas were too naive and simplistic; wether you call it ‘naive socialism’, or ‘utopian socialism’, it’s in any case a very schematic, and so was the art that tried to endorse them.

Here is the famous portrait of Zola by Manet, made in 1868 году – notice the card with Olympia among other inspirators of the writer.

Leaving all these ideological debates aside, in his Nana Manet also depicted one of the most unusual mirrors in art history; to my knowledge, we saw only one more such mirror, in one of the the gardens painted by Monet.

I don’t actually know how these mirrors have been called – following the previous example, I’d suggest le girafe glass.  The problem is, of course, that this mirror doesn’t do anything in particular, besides standing there. I am sure one can assign many interesting symbolisms to it (being the mirror alone, or coupled with other elements, such as this extinguished candle.

If Korean painter Kyung Min Nam in her Choice of Manet – From Olympia to Nana (2007) would place the Femme devant le miroir on the cover of the book, and depicted the Bar‘s chandeliers, say, reflected in the wall mirror somehow, she would thus manage to display (nearly) all Manet’s mirrors in one go:

Alas, she didn’t.

After these two mirrors Manet had a long mirrorless pause. Morisot never managed to get him out of his studio on the Plein Air; and eventually their paths parted. In the 1870s Manet creates many works, some very loaded politically and ideologically (such as his Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico), some other apparently a-political, like his tranquil view of Seine: 

These river scenes often included reflections, but I usually exclude them from my ‘mirror’ stories.  There are few ‘mirror suspects’, i.e., the things that could happen to be the mirrors, for instance, a possible wall mirror in this cafe scene:

but in many cases I can’t be sure.

Finally, the Bar:

The guide in the Courtauld talked a lot about how this painting (and specifically its mirror) is fooling us; I thought I was recording his talk, but, to my regret, later discovered that I wasn’t. As a way to learn the basic facts and memes about this painting I could suggest to look at this video – Manet’s Bar at Folies Bergere (~4 min):

and then, of course, to browse through the article.

The main paradox of the painting is usually presented in a short and plain statement: it is not possible! The scene allegedly distorts the ‘reality’ and depicts something that couldn’t exist in the real world.

This position is expressed, though in a slightly longer way, in the following quote, by Anne Coffin Hanson, a prominent art historian:

The barmaid’s reflection does not seem to be where it should be, the reflected images of the bottles on the marble bar do not match their more tangible models. Historians have attacked the problem like sleuths, expecting to find some key to a logical and naturalistic explanation. There is none.

If it is a ‘normal’ large flat mirror behind the barmaid, we then should have seen ourselves in the reflection, and the man would have to be right behind her too as well as the reflection of her own back! See below the reconstruction of this scene from the movie I mentioned earlier:

The studies for this painting show that the woman’s back in the mirror was initially depicted closer to her own body (yet we still don’t see ‘us’ in the painting).

The x-ray studies of the painting also illustrate that Manet started to paint the reflection of the woman closer to the body (though already bit further than in the earlier version).

But then in the final version he changed the composition even further, moving the reflection further to the right, thus creating a very strange and distorted (some say ‘dream-like’) ‘sur-reality’:

These distortions are spotted not only in the apparently incorrect reflections of the woman, but also in the optically inaccurate reflections of many other objects in this painting (various bottles, for instance).

A very widely spread view is that Manet decided to play a trick; that he started to pain the painting in a more conventional way, and then at some point realised it would be see as too ‘banal’ and deliberately inserted this ‘enigma’.   A collateral version is that Manet could simply forget the ‘real situation’  – he was creating the sketches in the bar, but then finishing the final work in his own studio.

We have a few rare accounts describing this process:

When I returned to Paris in January 1882, my first visit was to Manet. He was then painting ‘Le Bar aux Folies Bergère’, and the model, a pretty girl, was posed behind a table loaded with bottles and victuals. …

Although Manet worked from a model, he by no means copied nature entirely. I remember his sweeping simplifications, he modelled the head of the woman, but his modelling was not achieved by the means that nature offered. Everything was simplified; the tones were made lighter, the colours brighter, the contrasts of values was made closer.

These are the lines from the diary of some Pierre-Georges Jeanniot, also a painter, who visited Manet and made a detailed description of this event – see it here: Jeanniot’s Visit to Manet’s Studio, January 1882.

Another line of considerations is to try to imagine – and hopefully reconstruct the position of the mirror that would allow this painting to be accurate. Some researchers suggest, for example, that at a certain angle of viewing at the wall and its mirror) this scene is in fact very possible:


which in real life means that the point of view should be not in the center of the painting (the traditional locus), but far to the right, and then you will get such a scene.

There is a study mentioned in the wikipedia article, the PhD thesis called Ambiguity, and the Engagement of Spatial Illusion within the Surface of Manet’s Paintings, by Malcolm Park.  I can’t find this work itself, only the record in the National Library of Australia),  but I have recently found a very detailed posting about this work, by Thierry de Duve, from the l’Université Lille (Intentionality and Art Historical Methodology: A Case Study).

He provides the reconstruction of the Bar’s scene according to Malcom Park:

Thierry de Duve proposes his own alternative interpretation (or rather alternative reconstruction of the event) – see his version juxtaposed to the one by Park:

Basically, in this version one would need to stand very close to the bar, and also to the right of the barmaid, but it also assumes that the mirror is not perpendicular to the bar, but placed at a certain angle.

De Duve’s take is even more complex, as he suggests that the very fact that this painting is correct in terms of perspectives is not of the main importance. What is really important is whether Manet deliberately made this puzzle, for us to solve, and by solving it, to figure out his general approach to visual art (De Duve calls it ‘leaving a clue’ in the painting).

De Duve believed that the version by Park implies such an intention; his own version does not need it as such, bit can accommodate it, if necessary, as well. He rises the question:

In the absence of “external evidence” (a piece of writing by the artist, the reviews of the critics, the testimony of contemporaries, etc.), what access do we have to the artist’s intentionality?”

and his own answer is “aesthetic intuition”.

That in turns tells him that Manet did want us to confront us with the face of Suzon (the model for the painting):

The very strong impression of facing Suzon is an essential component of the emotional impact Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère has on us, and thus, of our appreciation of the painting.”

And while it is not a criterion—no one will claim that the painting is a masterpiece because we are facing Suzon—the fact is that we are facing her, and I challenge whoever has seen the painting in the flesh to dare contradict me”.

Which in turns allegedly confirms the theory of de Duve.

I’ve seen the painting in flesh and dare to contradict.

I argue that in this painting – similar to many others of him – the key point was to express a certain ideological message.  To grasp which one should take the most vulgar approach of the ‘socialist realism’ ( I do understand that it didn’t exist by then as such, but its roots did grow from the ideologically loaded cultural production of French intellectuals, and following the Hegelian logic, the best way to understand an apple tree is to look at its apples.)

And if to speak about ‘clues’, for me then the juxtaposition of the servants (including the legs of the performing acrobat) and the watching public is no less signalling to – and revealing – the ‘true meaning’, or ‘true intention’ of the work.


And in this sense, I am also interested in ‘other’ versions of the event; even if they will turn to be no perfectly accurate in terms of ‘reality’, they could be nevertheless very insightful. For instance, as this recent re-enactment of this work suggests, there might be no mirror at at all in this work! Instead, what we see behind the barmaid could well be yet another painting!

I will come back to a few more re-appropriations of this work in a moment, but first I’d like to finish with the ‘factual’ side.

Manet’s life ended very early, very painfully, and altogether very sadly. His health quickly deteriorated from January 1882 onward, and during the work on this painting he was struggling with serious health problems. He managed to submit it to the Salon, and it was even accepted, despite very critical comments from some members of the jury. By the end of the year he was already very sick, suffering from gangrene. In April his leg was amputated, and at the end of the month he died. During his funeral the flag was hold, among others, by Émile Zola, Claude Monet, and Alfred Stevens (a Belgian painter, whose mirrors I need to write about too).

The enigma of the Bar was spotted from the very conception, so to speak, and it causes a lot of debates ever since. I mentioned the books by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu,  but it was already Maurice Merleau-Ponty who spotted a very special role that the mirror plays in this work:

[the mirror here is ] ‘the instrument of a universal magic that changes things into spectacles, spectacles into things, me into others, and others into me.’ 

The stream of thoughts didn’t stop (and will unlikely do in the future); few years ago Princeton University Press published a volume entirely dedicated this painting alone, a collection of twelve different essays:

The painting is also a subject of many ‘visual (re)interpretations’, various remakes and appropriations. As I already wrote, for me these ‘visual comments’ is no less important a way to better understand the original work (including its ‘true intent’, whatever that my mean).

I will show here just a few of those; I may consider making a separate compilation of such works in the future.

This one is by Vik Muniz – After Edouard Manet’s Bar at Folies Bergères (2008):


Yin Xin – After Édouard Manet’s Un bar aux Folies Bergere (2002)


Yasumasa Morimura – Daughter of Art History: Theatre B (1998)


Jeff Wall – Picture for Women (1979)


This latter remakes also poses an interesting question, to what extent the Bar is an autobiographical work, a self-portrait, that is. We know that technically speaking that man in the hat is not Manet, it was one of his friends who posed for the panting:

But there are many signs showing that certain issues depicted in, or through this work lay very closely to the personal life of Manet himself (e.g., the issue of prostitution, the collision of social classes, position of an artist). All that, and especially since the work turned to be the last one by the master, forces us to read as a manifesto of some sort.


I called this posting Bricolage of the hollow mirrors; one way to explain it is perhaps to compile all the Manet’s mirrors in one place, to better see that they reflect nothing (or, as in the case of the Bar, they reflect things that don’t exist).


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