A Bar at the Folies-Bergère – Édouard Manet’s Last Masterpiece

Title: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (Un bar aux Folies Bergère)

Author: Édouard Manet (Paris, France, January 23, 1832 – Paris, France, April 30, 1883)

Date: 1882

Genre: Genre art

Movement: Impressionism

Technique: Oil painting

Support: Canvas

Dimension: 37.8 × 51.2 in. (96 x 130 cm)

Location: The Courtauld Gallery (since 1934), London

There is one painting, appealing straightforward at first glance. However, our eyes can’t escape once we are trapped into its immersive complexity. It simply seems a Barmaid portrait, but it is undoubtedly way more than that!

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, Oil on canvas.

Let’s divulge all the essential and compelling details of Edouard Manet‘s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, waiting for us in London!


So, are you having a good day? Have you got anything planned for this afternoon? If not, come and join us; we are about to start our little trip to London to visit Edouard Manet’s final painting.

As we hurried on our way to get to the Courtauld Gallery, we found ourselves thinking about what makes great art great. Then, we entered the ornate room, filled with art pieces that could answer this question.

We were just fascinated by the paintings that came out of Édouard Manet’s hands. Then, one calls us to come closer. We are invigorated by our walk to the painting. And there it is! Before our very eyes, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, representing all he had ever attempted in art.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is seen hanging in London’s Courtauld Gallery.

The more you know the A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, the more dramatic it gets. The surprisingly intricate eye-catching painting is waiting for us to reveal its meaning to be known. So, let’s grasp its meaning first!

Meaning Behind the “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère conveys something about contemporary urban society or a description of a scene of ordinary life inside an upper-middle-class public place.


Around 1840 a new form of café, café-concert, appeared in Paris, in which singers and musicians presented a local form of entertainment. It was a type of upper-middle-class bar that hosts a wide array of amusement, including ballet, cabaret, acrobatics, pantomime, operetta, and animal acts. In times, these places bacame full-blown palaces of pleasure, such as the Eldorado, the Alcazar d’Ete, the Ambassadeurs, the Folies-Bergère, the Moulin Rouge, the Casino de Paris, and the Olympia.

Cafe-concert was very popular during Manet's time. And, the Folies-Bergère had rapidly became one of Paris's most popular music halls and areas of entertainment. Manet often visited there with friends and made some sketches there.
A poster of an event at Folies-Bergère.
A poster of an event at Folies-Bergère.

But, unfortunately, while working on A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, Manet was quite ill. In fact, one year after finishing the painting, he died. He assumed he was suffering from rheumatism, but he was afflicted with syphilis in reality. That’s why Manet couldn’t go to Folies-Bergère, while he was painting the portrait, and Manet had to use the sketches he had prepared before his illness and his memories of the place he could visualize in his mind. And a barmaid named Suzon (one of the staff of Folies-Bergère) came to pose in his studio so that the final artwork was complicated.


Although A Bar at the Folies-Bergère can be considered a portrait because an actual figure is depicted directly by herself, it is more than a portrait for art historians. Well, why? During our journey, we will be learning the reason 🙂

The visual and emotional ambiguities of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère have initiated many questions. Like, how do we describe the barmaid’s expression? Or, what is happening between the woman and the man?

But before diving into all, I want to mention Édouard Manet to understand the painting adequately.

Impressionist Manet

The young Manet embarked on his artistic training, showing incredible independence from the start. He knew right away what he would and would not paint. He was rejecting the subjects the Academy demanded, notably substantial events from the Bible, myth, and history.

Instead, he wanted to depict modern life: ordinary men and women go to the opera, enjoy a picnic, or flirt at a bar. However, on the other hand, Manet didn’t reject was artistic tradition like the other Impressionists. Many don’t deal anything to do with Renaissance artists. But Manet honored the masters by transforming their compositions.

French impressionist Édouard Manet, 1832-1883.

In the late 1870s, Manet frequently suffered from numbness and pain in his legs. He overlooked it as he thought the symptoms were because of rheumatism, but he soon learned the illness was the final stage of syphilis. He fought the disease as best he could, taking long trips to the country and undergoing hydrotherapy treatments. In the meantime, he painted as long as he could. Eventually, his last masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, encompassed all he had ever attempted in art.

The Movement of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

A Bar at the Folies-Bergére reflects the Impressionist influences of Manet’s focus on the complex theme of gender and class relations in modern urban life.

A remake of “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by Tom MacNeil.

The Technique of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

He applied open brushwork, which simply loose, visible paint strokes that do not create precise contours. Moreover, Manet has varied his brushwork throughout the canvas to draw our attention to different areas of the painting so that we are drawn into this assertive and rich composition.

What Can You See in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère?

Stood in front of a mirror, a seemingly bored barmaid with her faraway eyes awaits our order while both her hands are placed on the marble bar. We find such an affecting presence of the enigmatic woman with the ambivalences in her eyes. Behind her, the people’s hustle and bustle found a place in the giant mirror. Typical Parisian evening looks to bounce from her shoulders and extend throughout the mirror.

The bar top, the barmaid, liquor, and wine bottles have an ambiguous reflection in Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.

Overlooked Acrobat 

There is one detail overlooked by the viewers more often than not. In the left corner of the painting, an acrobat or dancer is seen wearing a pair of green shoes. Have you ever noticed this detail?

It looks to me; the more accurate way to interpret it is an acrobat performing on the trapeze. And also, at the bottom left of the painting, the woman with the opera binoculars in her hand seems to be watching the acrobat’s show above her. Considering the nature of the Folies-Bergère, it might be unnatural to not see these details in the painting.

The Barmaid’s Expression

At first glance, what did you feel about the look on her face? What is hidden in those eyes?

This elusive and unreadable look has been interpreted in so many different descriptions. Some thought it was sad, and others thought exposed, bored, lost in her thoughts, and more. Yet, in the bustle of this lounge, she could be dreaming, looking for something, or simply her lost self?

You can find the similar expression of the woman in his other paintings; Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, Oil on canvas.
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Oil on canvas.

The Posy of Red Petals

The artist has deliberately nestled a bouquet detail at the barmaid’s chest. Barmaid’s floral flourish reveals the influence of one of the most mesmerizing paintings in modern art.


Through the mirror behind Suzon, we can grasp the striking depth perception, which helps us understand how big Folies-Bergère is.

Top-hatted Man and the Woman

Behind and just right of the barmaid’s, another woman figure, standing with her back to us, talks with one man, wearing a top hat. And suddenly, we realize an essential point.

The woman we thought was behind the barmaid is none other than a reflection of the barmaid! 

I can hear you are saying, how could it be? The woman’s reflection in the mirror is almost as if a second figure is in front of the mirror. And yet another question pops into your heads; if we see the man’s reflection in the mirror, why isn’t his figure also visible in front of the bar? Suzon’s reflection is also clearly seen without being interrupted by her. Unless the mirror is angled so that we can see their reflection like this.

Arrangement of the bar and its reflected image, viewed from above, showing the “offset” viewpoint. Computer-generated diagram by Malcolm Park.

But if you look at the gold-colored frame of the mirror, you will notice that the gold-colored frame extends parallel to the wall. And, the truth is barmaid with an enigmatic unsettling expression, and the top-hatted man she interacts with was painted by ignoring normal perspective by Manet. He indeed played with perspective as he wished. By which I mean, Manet has shifted their reflection from behind Suzon where you could not see correctly to the right.

Still Life Objects

Why are the reflections of the figures and still life objects displaced so far to the right?

The bottles on the left are similarly misaligned in the mirror, like Suzon and the man. This play of reflections highlights the disorientating environment of the vibrant Folies-Bergère. We know that there is a willful distortion from his early sketches.

The Harmony of the Triangles

Triangles are indeed everywhere. Once one is located, the others appear consequently. Let’s discover all of them.

1.The barmaid’s arms in a downwards slope
2. The posy of red petals sculpted into a triangle
3. The bottom hem of the barmaid’s black coat
4. The chandeliers reflected in the mirror
5. Triangular belly of the green bottle of absinthe on the bar top
6. Hands pose of the woman, wearing yellow gloves, sitting next to the man on the far left


Among the bottles, the far left one is BASS & C” PALE ALE. It is known as the first registered trademark of Britain. So, why is this English beer, which does not appeal to the people of Paris, being served at a cafe-concert in Paris?

The 19th century was when everyone in Europe frequently traveled and stayed in the places they went for a long time. British tourists in Paris and beer lovers demanded it abundantly.

On the red bottle next to the beer bottle on the left, you can find Manet’s signature and the date he finished the painting.

Last not but not least, A bar at the Folies Bergère symbolizes the fulfillment of Manet’s interest in modern life scenes by conveying the fleeting quality of life. And yet he symbolizes it by giving a place his usual hot spot which is a music hall for the middle class of Parisian. For all its modernity, depicting a waitress standing before a marble counter, an enormous mirror behind her reflecting the glittering chandeliers, and a chattering crowd, the painting still honors artistic masterworks by including traditional symbols such as roses and oranges, therefore, could we interpret that he creating a modern goddess, and Venus turns into a simple waitress by Manet’s hand?

Who is the Man in the Bar at the Folies Bergère?

There could be a relationship between the top-hatted mand and viewers. If we are the viewer or the customer about to order and standing directly in front of the woman, and she’s looking us in the eyes, does the top-hatted man figure represent us? In this case, what is the nature of our relationship to the barmaid? (Let us know in the comments)

Does A Bar at the Folies-Bergère Have Something to do with Prostitution?

When Manet painted his Olympia, he took on the whole tradition of romanticizing prostitution. And, 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. Manet has chosen to depict the venue, Folies Bergère, where prostitutes plied their trade. Therefore, the woman behind the bar is believed to represent one of the prostitutes. But the barmaid might not be a prostitute at all. 

All was said by me, yet, the one more thing left to be told by Édouard Manet…

“Faire vrai; laisser dire.” (Do what’s true; let them talk.)

Édouard Manet

I have a few questions for you:

What title would you give this painting?
How does this painting make you feel? 

You can share your answers with us in the comments:)

To learn more about Manet and his works, I recommend to you the book “Manet and the Object of Painting” by Michel Foucault.

Wanna continue to read more about art? Check out Goya‘s great work of romanticism, here.

Until next time, stay with art.. ????????✌

See Also:

The Courtauld’s Video
Virtual Tour

I recommend you to take the virtual tour as well to have a better experience of “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” in 3D.

Comments are closed.