Terry Barrett, “Interpreting Art”, Chapter II, “A Bar at the Folies Bergere”, Edouard Manet (1882) by Jeanne Beck



A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882), Edouard Manet

In Chapter II, Barrett shifts our attention from varied observations and interpretations by children, scholars and the general public of a body of Magritte’s work to multiple interpretations by art historians and scholars of one specific painting. This painting, by Édouard Manet (1832-1883), is “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” 1882, which was Manet’s last major painting before his death.

We can observe a number of details in this painting. A woman stands facing the viewer behind a bar in a crowded room. The marble top bar she rests her hands on also displays a selections of bottles, flowers and fruit. A mirror behind her reflects everyone else in the scene. She is the only figure not seen via the mirror and the figures and images in the mirror are not reflected correctly. The objects in the foreground are rendered realistically, but the background is depicted with loose brush strokes that seem to focus more on the placement of patches of paint than realistic depictions of objects or subjects. The picture appears flattened and two dimensional; some scholars suggest the space is so flattened that there is not enough room between the barmaid and the mirror for the barmaid to be three dimensional.

Barrett writes that the painting has relevance and interest to historically-focused scholars for what it can reveal about the times. Another group of scholars is more interested in interpreting the imagery and symbolism in the painting. These expert opinions that Barrett cites express very different points of view and all are very well argued, with clear reasoning and historical evidence to substantiate their opinions.

Most of the interpreters in the chapter identify and describe similar elements of the subject matter in the painting — the bar maid, the distortions in the mirror, the man in the top hat in the right corner. They also identify the painting’s form similarly – that it was painted more abstractly rather than faithfully representing reality, that there were distortions in the way the mirror reflected the images in front of it.

Although most of the experts in this chapter disagreed in their interpretations of these descriptions, their diverse points of view make considering the painting even more interesting. Barrett started us off in Chapter 1 with a guiding statement, that we interpret art to make sense of it. Although each of the scholars and researchers that Barrett cites in this chapter disagree about numerous things, they share an intention to better understand the painting themselves and share that understanding with their readers.

Each interpreter seems to focus on different descriptive elements in the painting. They select and combine observations and facts into an interpretation that attempts to reveal the meaning of the piece. Because they are approaching the painting with different interests, their questions about the painting and responses to it are also different.

What makes the chapter so interesting is just this diversity of perspectives and opinions. We can look at the painting with an historian’s eye and learn more about the times in which it was painted, both the historical events and the culture of Paris in the 1800’s. We can look at the painting and consider the enigmatic figure and posture of the barmaid, then read what others have decided she represents. Is she provocative or weary, a prostitute as some interpreters suggested or just a young working class girl?

Barrett doesn’t present his own opinions in this chapter about the painting or the painter. What he does do is demonstrate how valuable it is for us to be exposed to the discourse, however conflicting, of informed, carefully considered and argued opinions about a work of art. That leaves us with the task of considering the ideas of experts as we formulate our own ideas and opinons about the meaning of a work.


1. How do you interpret the posture and gaze and dress of the bar maid in this painting? Does one expert’s opinion strike you as the most accurate interpretation?
2. What do you think is the significance, if any, of the man with the top hat who appears in the upper right hand corner of the mirror?
3. Do you feel there are any other significant details in the painting that are important to understanding it? Why, for example, does the artist paint unopened bottles, two flowers in a vase and a bowl of fruit on the bar next to the barmaid?
4. Why do you think the artist chose to paint the barmaid’s gaze to avoid the viewer?
5. How do you interpret the artist’s choice to make the reflections in the mirror differ from a realistic interpretation?
6. What makes this painting so different from others of the same time period?


13 Responses to “Terry Barrett, “Interpreting Art”, Chapter II, “A Bar at the Folies Bergere”, Edouard Manet (1882) by Jeanne Beck”

  1. 1 Anonymous November 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    What is Manet trying to communicate in his work ‘The bar at Folies’?
    whats he trying to represent?
    Does it have any symbolic or moral meanings?

  2. 3 kt March 9, 2008 at 8:23 am

    is the man in the top hat edouard manet ?

  3. 4 june April 25, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    ummm, interesting. One comment I read recently said the shocker was that Manet has the viewer looking into the painting and instead of seeing a come-hither nude, sees — himself!

  4. 5 joan April 25, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    I’m behind in reading and commenting about this book. I love the Manet and was really almost rushing through the chapter on Magritte to get to the the second chapter (although I found the discussion of The Postcard so interesting; it really made be see the painting anew). I haven’t finished the second chapter but I wanted to comment. I couldn’t figure out how the man could be a reflection if we saw none of him in the foreground. My immediate impression was that these were two different women. The woman talking to the man strikes me as having a different body type—her shoulders are sloped; to me she seems tired; her waist is thickened. Could the woman in the “mirror” be with child? And the man – the father? The flowers and the fruit, symbols of fecundity?

  5. 6 clairan April 12, 2007 at 5:30 am

    Yes exactly, the two girls are one, the public and the private, the exploited and the essential. But the one we see full on is the essential, private one exposed for a moment, a reflection on how she is “exposed” in her public life.

  6. 7 june April 11, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    I too love the painting. I like to think that the “two” women are one — the flirtatious and the “tired, wistful dreamy resigned” — so I think we are in agreement. The face on the resigned woman is heart-tearing; how many times have we caught a barista or bartender in a moment when they were caught unaware, when you suddenly realize that their lives are elsewhere; and then they look up and put on the public face that we assume will be there.

    I found the comment about the way the jacket parts to point directly to her pudendum feeds almost directly into Jane’s post on Judy Chicago. The public face of this woman is all about her gender, even if her private face pulls back from that. And so too I think Chicago was saying something about poetesses, women artists, seamstresses, actresses, charwomen, and so forth. The public face of the women Chicago celebrates are often discussed as the best “female” poet (or the “best poetess”) of the 19th century. The best woman novelist, the best actress, the best –esse, meaning not the best, but the second best….

  7. 8 clairan April 11, 2007 at 11:01 am

    I agree with you June, that’s exactly what I see when I first looked and even now, when I simply look at the painting. 2 barmaids. But it cannot be, and so I ask “why?”. And for me the answer comes down to the social issues. The barmaid/prostitute, impoverished and looked down on, and the obvious luxury and lavishness (might I want to go so far as to say decadence?, yes!) of the scene. Leaning toward the man in the top hat is the barmaid doing her job and presumably being “gay” and coquettish. The girl we see is the tired, wistful, dreamy, resigned one. I love this painting and I think it’s brilliant because it made me look and look and look until I could come up with story that made sense to me.

  8. 9 June April 11, 2007 at 9:12 am

    Hi all,

    The first time I saw this Manet — and even now, after rereading the Barrett chapter — I see two barmaids, one with her back to us, flirting with the old guy in the top hat. In part it’s the bottles on the bar and the off-side placement of the figures (both of which deny that there’s a mirror there). On the other hand, the figure “in the mirror” stops at the putative mirror’s frame and the frame is clearly in evidence. So either she is in the mirror or the world has done something queer to our perceptions.

    Not one of the commentators that Barrett mentions suffers from a similar view of the painting, though, so it must be my own peculiar line of sight.

    What I find with the Barrett chapter is his maddening even-handedness. He simply recounts what many scholars and researchers have said about the painting, without interjecting anything himself except that we are enriched by _all_ the interpretations and don’t have to decide which one is “correct.” In fact, I think he says they are all correct, even when they contradict one another. And I find that comforting and charming.

    So while Barrett can be maddening about his disinterest (not un-interest, but rather refusal to take sides) he is also very good at telling us that even those who look and look again and look again can have very different ideas about the interpretation of the art.

    I also like it that description, the very first element of art critiquing, is colored by interpretation. What the researcher or viewer describes is almost certainly determined by two things: what’s in the painting itself and what interpretation s/he is leaning toward.

  9. 10 clairan April 9, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    I think the fruit and the bottles etc. emphasize the sumptuousness and luxury and sensuality of the Bar and this contrasts with the poverty (and presumed “career” as prostitute) of the young bar maid.

    I like the idea of the reflections being in her mind.

    Or perhaps Manet is just saying, something is askew here.

  10. 11 eileen doughty April 9, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    This painting strikes me as different from many others of the Impressionist period because it seems to be telling a story, rather than doing nothing deeper than capturing a momentary view (an impression) of something.

    My interpretation of the woman and the “reflection” – I think it is not a literal reflection, but rather her own internal “reflection” of what she is thinking. She *is* reflecting. (Not sure if the French words are related in the same way, I will have to ask Avril.) I think she sees herself and the man in her mind. That is why the main figures don’t line up properly, and why she is not focused on anything in the space in front of her. Perhaps the corked-up bottles and ripe fruit indicate her emotions toward the man. Pre-Freudian, even.

    As for the various interpretations referenced in the book, the ones i found most curious were those critics who took pains to identify the tiny people in the mirror. Surely Monet had his reasons to paint them, but I am not convinced they are significant to the story in the foreground, but just contrast the raucous place with the still woman.

  11. 12 jeannebeck April 9, 2007 at 11:24 am

    And if the man in the mirrow were indeed in front of this barmaid at the same angle that he is presented in the mirror, we would see at least a portion of him in the foreground. Does the figure of the woman in the figure appear to be gazing at someone?

    I didn’t see most of what I now see in this painting until I read the chapter and did some additional reading on the internet. It was surprising to me as well how controversial this work was and the criticism levied at it because the reflections were not accurate. Some even accused Manet of poor workmanship, believing that it was lack of skill that distorted the reflections rather than an artistic choice. Every detail in this painting seems to challenge the viewer and makes us question what the meaning of it is.

  12. 13 clairan April 9, 2007 at 5:05 am

    I have some questions of “fact.” It’s always been very hard for me to read the surface of this beautiful work. Is the layer directly behind the bar maid mirror? It would seem so, because the brown behind her right hand seems to be the mirror’s frame. But the bottles then on the right are clearly not the bottles in the foreground. And is the man in the top hat in the mirror? If so, he must be talking to the barmaid, who could be the reflected woman in blue(at an odd angle. So would her gaze then be on the man in the top hat?

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