He made art of great beauty

“The Bar at the Folies-Bergere,” 1882, by Edouard Manet, 51 x 38 inches.

     Edourd Manet (1832-83) promoted a very quiet revolution in painting.  The fashion of the day, in painting, called for careful color, subtle blending and polished “finish.”  But Manet preferred to use bold colors, strong brushstrokes, and enjoyed showing the harsh, realistic contrasts created by sunlight.   His attitude was a major influence on the group of younger painters who became known as the Impressionists.  They were affected by his radical use of strong flat color, broken brushwork, strong natural lighting, and the fresh, “raw” appearance of his paintings.

     Manet was a cultured, sophisticated man from a well-to-do background.  A quiet, well-liked and gentlemanly fellow, he wanted nothing more than ordinary success at the Paris salons.  He could never understand why people found many of his paintings offensive or why his work was reviled by the Parisian art world.  What shocked the public and the critics was that his work stripped away the social pretenses of the time.  When he painted “Le Dejuner sur l’Herbe,” rather than classical nymphs and shepherds he showed two men in business suits picnicking in a woodsy glade with two unclad young ladies who were obviously not nymphs but were modern, fleshy women.  There is no hint of scandalous activity, other than that the women are unclothed and completely comfortable with their nudity.  He had painted a picture of something that might actually have been seen by a person of that time taking a stroll in the woods, and people were utterly shocked.

      Today, we are surprised that Manet’s contemporaries didn’t see the great beauty of his art.  The strong yet soft image of a young body shown against the dark loveliness of the woods is so beautiful that it’s a mystery why so few people could actually “see” what he had painted.  Luckily, he had private income which allowed him to pursue a career in art without financial problems, but he was so determined to paint in his own way that even if he were starving he probably would not have changed his work. 

     Manet’s final masterpiece is “The Bar at the Folies-Bergere.” The artist played with the idea of space, and how it is affected by reflections.   The barmaid, Suzon, stands in front of a huge mirror; her expression combines boredom and sadness.  To the bar patrons, she is just an object, like the fruit in the bowl or the wine in the bottles.  The painting is full of beautiful little details; the exquisite flowers in the vase, the bowl of fruit, the grouping of wine bottles, and the delicate lace on Suzon’s bodice. 

     It can be a surprise to discover, tucked away in an upper corner above the glare of the electric lights, a pair of legs in little green boots.  In fact, this is the reflection of a trapeze act.  The Folies-Bergere, a music hall, included “variety shows,” and was also frequented by prostitutes who plied their trade among the customers.

     Manet was criticized with ignoring the laws of perspective in this picture.  To the right, we see the reflection of a customer who seems to be talking with the barmaid.  However, we should be able to see his physical body, considering where he is positioned in the reflection.  Manet may be playing a little joke; we, the viewers, are in the position that the customer would rightly occupy, and so we take his place. 

     Apart from the solid figure of Suzon and the bar laden with refreshments, the rest of the painting is just a reflection in the mirror.  Wisps of blue-gray paint float over the surface of the canvas, evoking the smoky atmosphere.  There are cameo portraits of Manet’s friends in the background.

     Manet left us a wonderful legacy.  He recreated the fashionable Parisian world he knew and loved, with all its splendor and with all its flaws.

cc SOURCE: Art-to-Art Palette Journal print edition

Published by on April 2011. Filed under Archives, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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