1882 WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Courtauld Gallery
I LIKE IT
See also 'The Execution of Maximilion
There’s no getting round it, London’s best painting is French. As French as an appellation contrôllée aperitif sipped by a chic courtesan on a belle-epoque banquette. But that’s what you get for running such an, erm, laissez-faire poll. The art world has spoken and Edouard Manet, nineteenth-century painting colossus and mentor for younger impressionist contemporaries such as Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, has triumphed.
So should we feel disappointed? Not one bit. ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ is the last great work by one of the greatest painters of all time. Philanthropic art collector Samuel Courtauld knew as much when he stumped up more than £22,000 for it in 1926 (that’s over £1million today). From the dimpled skin of satsumas and the crinkled foil of a champagne bottle (don’t worry, they’re serving Bass pale ale for us rosbiefs), to the flowers nestled in the décolletage of the barmaid and the intoxicating fug of the notorious nightclub itself (Manet’s favourite hang-out, naturally) this masterpiece distils everything that’s great about a painter who is often dubbed ‘the first modern artist’.
But it’s more than that. It’s also one of the most psychologically-charged paintings you’ll ever see, a glittering world of misleading reflections and skewed perspectives. At its centre, alone in the crowd, stands a barmaid – and probably also a prostitute – weary, detached, looking at us but not really at us, while to the right, in reflection, we see a shadowy figure who’s no doubt interested in more than a glass of rosé. Where are we in this image? Well, that’s us with the top hat and the tache, the menacing lech. The implication: that everything here is for sale lends a cold, hard reality to the scene. It’s the party and the hangover rolled into one. And Manet paints it with the mixed feelings of intoxicated punter and dispassionate observer.
There’s humour and pathos in the details – an acrobat’s legs dangle in the air at the top left of the painting; Manet has added his signature to the bottle of wine on the left of the marble counter. And is that the artist himself amid the throng across the room? He was mortally ill when he finished this work. It’s long been considered his au revoir to the captivating theatre of glamour and cruelty that was nineteenth-century Paris.