Beer in Art #1: Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Unless you’ve traveled with me, you probably didn’t know that one of my other geeky hobbies is art. I love going to art museums, especially obscure local ones, whenever I travel. And while I naturally check out what breweries there are wherever I go, I also consult Art Across America, a great reference book of art museums that tells you where they are, their hours and other basic information. So I’ve been thinking lately that I should share that passion and highlight the countless times when beer and art intersect. So once a week, I’ll bring you another work of art that has something to do with beer, alternating between old classics and modern interpretations. If you know of a piece of art featuring beer, please drop me a line or comment here and I’ll work it into the queue for future artistic posts.

We’ll start today with an undisputed masterpiece. Started in 1882, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, by the French painter Édouard Manet, is a favorite of mine, not least of which because it features prominently bottles of Bass Ale in the painting with their distinctive red triangles.

Click on the image above for a larger view. From Wikipedia:

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, painted and exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1882, was the last major work by French painter Édouard Manet. It depicts a scene in the Folies Bergère nightclub in Paris.

The painting is filled with contemporaneous details specific to the Folies-Bergère. The distant pair of green feet in the upper left-hand corner belong to a trapeze artist, who is performing above the restaurant’s patrons.

The beer which is depicted would have catered not to the tastes of Parisians, but to those of English tourists, suggesting a British clientèle. Manet has signed his name on the label of the bottle at the bottom left, combining the centuries-old practice of self-promotion in art with something more modern, bordering on the product placement concept of the late twentieth century.

But for all its specificity to time and place, it is worth noting that, should the background of this painting indeed be a reflection in a mirror on the wall behind the bar as suggested by some critics, the woman in the reflection would appear directly behind the image of the woman facing forward. Neither are the bottles reflected accurately or in like quantity for it to be a reflection. These details were criticized in the French press when the painting was shown. The assumption is faulty when one considers that the postures of the two women, however, are quite different and the presence of the man to whom the second woman speaks marks the depth of the subject area. Indeed many critics view the faults in the reflection to be fundamental to the painting as they show a double reality and meaning to the work.

The increased use of the new technology of photography began to free artists such as Manet to do more than merely imitate life. At any rate, Manet was confident enough to take liberties with literal transcription for the sake of composition.

For this great painting, the Getty has some good info, too. If you want to learn more about the artist, the Art Archive or the ArtCyclopedia are both good places to start.


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