What is going through the barmaid's mind? Why is her reflection in the mirror so strange? Ghislaine Kenyon unravels the complexities of a Manet masterpiece
She's moody, she's depressed; she's weary or distracted, sulky and bored, or alternatively, full of character, placid. These are just a few of the contradictory descriptions by critics and the public of the expression on the face of the most famous barmaid in the history of art.
She is currently to be found at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in an exhibition called Manet Face to Face, which features two of Manet's greatest works: "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" (1881-82) and "Luncheon in the Studio" (1868). But the barmaid's expression is not the only puzzling, even disturbing, thing about this painting. Completed in 1882, it was exhibited that year at the Paris Salon (roughly equivalent to the Royal Academy's summer exhibition and the main showcase for contemporary art in Paris). Ever since, it has represented one of the defining aspects of Impressionist painting: the modernity of modern life, and its feeling of dislocation from the safe and the known.
From 1882 onwards, critics, art historians and other commentators have wondered about the mismatch between the main character (the barmaid at her counter) and her reflection in the large mirror behind it: the barmaid is too far from her reflection, the male customer in the reflection is too close to the barmaid, and the bottles in the reflection do not correspond with those at the bar. Speculation increased when Manet's oil sketch for the work was examined: here a different barmaid is placed at an angle to the mirror, with a more or less "logical" reflection. When x-rays of the final canvas revealed that Manet originally repeated this "logical" composition but then altered it, it was realised that the incongruities of the reflection were intentional. This raised more questions.
Another feature of the painting which today's viewer may find unbalancing (as 1882's certainly would have), is how the different elements of the picture are painted relative to each other: 19th-century viewers would have expected a hierarchical frame in which figures were more prominent than landscape or still-life elements. It's true that the barmaid is an arresting image: she takes up all the central space, she's attractively dressed and she gazes out at our world; but Manet ensures that we have an equal, even competitive awareness of the objects on the counter. Perhaps those lusciously painted mandarins in their crystal dish and the rich foils of the champagne bottles jar slightly with the barmaid's remote expression? We may then be prompted to wonder whether there is a narrative to this picture in which these inanimate objects play a starring role. Is everything perhaps for sale, including the barmaid?
The scene is set in a bar at the Folies-Bergere, a fashionable example of the Paris cafe-concert - a place for drinking, eating and entertainment of many kinds including music, dance and acrobatics. The Folies charged admission and attracted a mainly middle-class public. It had a reputation as a place where prostitutes found clients. In the reflected spaces we see fashionably dressed crowds, who drink, converse and gaze (a woman to the left of the barmaid looks through her opera-glasses). Entertainment is hinted at with the cropped pair of legs resting on a trapeze in the top left-hand corner. Gas lights, chandeliers and smoke all help create a sense of brightly glamorous night-time entertainment.
The barmaid stands behind a bar in the balcony of the main auditorium; the mirror behind her reflects the opposite balcony with a view of the stalls below (bottom left) and two of the columns supporting the balcony. On the bar is a range of luxury consumables: champagne, wine, creme de menthe and Bass beer, recognisable by its trademark red triangle. The barmaid in her reflected image leans towards a top-hatted male customer who seems to look into her eyes - in her primary image though, she does not return his gaze.
In the context of these uncertainties there have been many interpretations of this work, including formalist (the artist was concerned primarily with colour and form) feminist (gender roles in modern Paris, Manet's own relationships with women) socio-political (the clientele of the Folies-Berg re) and psychoanalytical (this was Manet's last large work, painted at a time when he knew he had a terminal illness). These varied interpretations make it a good image with which to challenge and inspire students of all ages, from different curriculum areas including art and design, citizenship, history and literacy.
* "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" is on show in the exhibition Manet Face to Face at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery until January 9. For free guided visits for schools contact Learning at Somerset House:
Tel: 020 7420 9406
Ghislaine Kenyon is head of learning at Somerset House, London
* Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
As a child in a middle-class family, Manet was expected to study law but resisted, first going to sea, and finally in 1850 beginning six years of study as an artist. He spent many hours copying artists such as Titian, Vel zquez and Delacroix in the Louvre, and his work always seemed to search for a place in the tradition of painting. Yet he was always modern: he painted broadly, as if out of focus, with sharper details here and there, and his subjects reflected modern life. Though often described as an Impressionist, he did not exhibit with the group, and although he adopted some of their tenets such as painting out of doors, he never subscribed fully to their techniques.
Speaking and listening: lead a group discussion asking children to name objects, and then work out where the scene is set using the visual clues.
Word-level work: find and use high-frequency words and phonemes.
Develop visual literacy. Pupils examine the image, working out for themselves the fact that the background is a reflection, but not a convincing one.
Find the trapeze and legs, talk about different textures: smooth marble; cold glass bottles; silky hair.
Discuss how it feels to be behind the bar, to be the object of a gaze.
Art How would the children update the image? For example, could an ice-cream seller replace the barmaid?
Research still life. Manet has grouped similar bottles on either side of the barmaid, but strict symmetry is avoided with the addition of the green creme de menthe bottle on the right and the dish of mandarins, which first draw attention to themselves and then make a colour link to the barmaid's rouged cheeks. Transpose and restage the image using different media. Both bar and the barmaid are dressed up (both wear flowers): does that imply that they have equal status?