The last great painting by Manet, the father of Impressionism (despite himself)

Édouard Manet earned a very bad reputation during his lifetime for what was left over or missing in his paintings.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
17 September 2023 Sunday 10:24
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The last great painting by Manet, the father of Impressionism (despite himself)

Édouard Manet earned a very bad reputation during his lifetime for what was left over or missing in his paintings. Paris raised its hands with its Breakfast on the Grass (1863): why were those contemporary gentlemen dressed and the ladies, who were clearly not nymphs, practiced nudism with abandon? Another scandal was created with Olympia (1865): that lady, also without clothes and reclining, was no Venus, you just needed to notice that she was wearing high-heeled shoes.

For his farewell to this world, the painter prepared his most eccentric canvas, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1880-81). If one day you go to London's Courtauld Gallery, don't be surprised to see a crowd that zigzags left and right, back and forth to unravel an optical mess in which reality and its reflection in the mirror seem to be each on their own.

When Manet painted A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, his syphilis caused intermittent paralysis. Then came gangrene in one leg, his amputation and death. Suzon, a waitress at the Folies, came to her studio to pose for the canvas. The process was painful, interrupted on countless occasions when the painter had to lie down on the sofa. He would never paint a painting of those dimensions again: during the three years he had left he would take refuge in small pastels.

Manet had been the most dandy of the Parisian artists. His friend Stéphane Mallarmé described him as a man “of virile innocence, with a gray coat, beard and blonde hair that he grayed with ingenuity.” The painter spent many evenings at the Folies-Bergère, a café-concert that had opened its doors in 1869 and was rabidly fashionable. It was not yet the dream factory that it would become in 1887, when Place aux Jeunes was released, the magazine that transformed the place into a music hall mecca (Josephine Baker and Bella Otero would dance there).

Manet's Folies had shows – the feet of an acrobat appear at the top of the canvas – but among its greatest attractions were drinking, smoking, dancing and, above all, bathing in crowds. The multitude, the mass of the middle class with a certain purchasing power, was the star of the second half of the 19th century. Men and, the big news, women. Some came to the Folies to exercise their economic independence and squander part of their salary (30% of the salaried population in France was female). Others came to win him over: the cocottes, sellers of illusion, who pretended to allow themselves to be courted for a price.

“Cultivate your memory, because nature will never give you more than information,” was one of his mottos. Manet created a unique pictorial space from a real one. A bar in the Folies-Bergère is based on a gigantic lie: the three bars of the establishment were on the ground floor, and neither the room nor the boxes were reflected in their mirrors. Manet can also be accused of having forgotten to put the champagne bottles on ice, but he did not forget the Bass Pale Ale, a very popular English beer, recognizable by the triangle on its label and the first registered trademark in the history of the islands. The drink alluded to the large British clientele who crossed the English Channel to have a drink on the banks of the Seine.

What irritated critics most about Manet's works was his lack of narrative. Or the impenetrability of it. Accustomed to historicist and religious paintings that were easy to interpret, they did not see a story in those paintings. Why does Suzon look so bored to death? Or is she tired? The girl, like many shop assistants and waitresses in Paris, possibly had a double job: serving behind and in front of the counter. I mean, maybe her body was for sale. As Manet's art had been throughout his life: he belonged to a generation of painters who, misunderstood, did not live among the cotton wool of patronage. That the painter has signed his name on the label of a pink bottle is not a mere coincidence: art as commerce.

Someone defined Manet's artistic career as a “carnival of notoriety” due to the continuous scandal of his paintings. Father of Impressionism, much to his chagrin, he never exhibited in the group's independent exhibitions, although it is true that, thanks to his family, he could survive without selling a single painting. The Salon, the official French exhibition, was “the battlefield,” he said. More than once, however, he found himself exiled “to the shanty next door,” the Hall of the Rejected, created by Napoleon III to accommodate the growing number of works that did not pass the screening of the Hall's jury.

However, the moth-eaten establishment that presided over the Salon had no choice but to eat with potatoes A bar in the Folies-Bergère: the canvas was exhibited in 1882 without undergoing any purge, since Manet, thanks to the intercession of a friend, Antonin Proust, brand new Minister of Culture, had been awarded the Legion of Honor.

A bar in the Folies-Bergère can be considered the pictorial testament of Manet, a pioneer in immortalizing the vie moderne of the City of Light. We are faced with a game of mirrors, of appearances, bathed in an impossible light. Neither gas nor electric lamps – both coexisted in Suzon's Folies-Bergère – could give the scene as much brightness as Manet gave it. The reality was darker.

In 1863, the same year in which Manet had exhibited the revolutionary Breakfast on the Grass in the first Hall of the Rejected, he made a decision that had little to do with revolution. He was marrying Suzanne Leenhoff, his family's music teacher, thus putting an end to the rumors. Years ago, Suzanne had given birth to a son, whom she insisted on presenting to society as her newly appeared little brother.

Léon, that was the boy's name, was the son of Édouard himself or his brother Eugène, or their father, Auguste, a judge very well connected with the Ministry of Justice. The most sinister thing is that the latter died of syphilis, a disease that he could have transmitted, via Suzanne, to Édouard. In the Paris that Manet painted, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie already emerged, and its even more discreet disenchantment.

This text is part of an article published in number 492 of the magazine Historia y Vida. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at