A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Édouard Manet (1882)

A game of contrasts here, Jeff, as the good-time glamour of the famous bar is contrasted with the sullen, muted barmaid who looks out at us. For all the vibrancy of the scene – expensive booze (including a bottle of Bass!), trapezing feet top left – there’s no doubt she’d rather be anywhere else, and the brutal glare of the lights on the pillars only makes that desire more plain. There’s gorgeously suggestive impressionist detail everywhere: the lace of her dress, the polished top hats, and especially the huge chandelier. But this is also about seeing and being seen: can we ever really know what we see? We see the barmaid balefully looking out at us, but the reality is more ambiguous: the giant mirror behind her reflects a more engaged exchange with a customer, and if we pause to work out how it all fits together, we see it’s a complex system of mirrors and illusions. We only see the world second or third hand, and even the centre of the painting is shown to be a trick in the mirror. We’re taken back to Velázquez’s web of illusions in Las Meninas (unsurprisingly, Manet was a fan). Perhaps most telling of all, though, is the contrast between the role society lays out for her and her cheerless alienation in fulfilling it. At the epicentre of the most seductively glittering place on the planet, surrounded by revellers, she’s seen but not heard, on show (or for sale) like those other expensive products, and she’s surrounded by noise and people but unable to enjoy either solitude or company. You don’t have to be alone to be lonely.