Manet; The Charm of a Gaze


Eduard Manet, “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1863)

There is something annoying in some of Eduard Manet’s paintings that disturbs the tranquility of our pleasure. A quality that, I believe, reflects the self-reflectivity aspect of his pictures as the audience is referred to oneself through the paintings. In his paintings, hardly ever, individuals look at each other. There is a mysterious attempt among his personages to avoid eye contact and so, in a way, his characters live in their own solitude. Presumably, such an attitude should provide the perception of painting with the tempting pleasure of voyeurism as it does when you invisibly see the nudity in classic works. In Manet’s, however, there is always one character, usually female, who shamelessly stares at us. This gaze which makes us fully aware of our situation, forces us to think about the scene and its hidden confronting story. In “The luncheon on the grass” (1863), the nude woman who is freely sitting between two inattentive fully dressed men, has such a piercing gaze that made the Salon authorities at the time so uncomfortable and resentful that rejection became inevitable! Later on, Manet successfully presented the painting in “Salon des Refusés” that had been provided due to the large amount of refused paintings in 1863. As it can be guessed, he attracted a huge criticism but fortunately enough, he was more determined to his approach to have a u-turn. And so the gaze appeared repeatedly in his paintings for example in “Olympia” (1863), “The Surprised Nymph” (1859 – 1861), “The Garden” (1870), “The Railway” (1872) and even in “The Monet family in their garden at Argenteuil” (1874). But right when we get used to being uneasy, in his very last painting, he surprisingly depicts a distant, yet haunting, gaze. What has been secretly concealed in the bartender’s look at the Folies-Bergeres nightclub that gave it such an intriguing quality? What’s the story?

The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres, by Edouard Manet

Eduard Manet, “The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” (1882)

For a modern Parisian Folies-Bergeres is just a music hall with some stage performances. But back in the late nineteen and early twentieth century, this glamorous building at 32 rue Richer in the 9th Arrondissement was the spirit of nightlife in Paris. This classic French cabaret was a perfect venue to get together and enjoy seeing seductive dancers and amusing jugglers, singers and clowns. Twenty years before Moulin Rouge gave birth to can-can dance and got a name, Folies-Bergeres allowed high class Parisians to be free from rules of society and be entertained with Music Hall performances which was new at the time. A touch of nudity, mixed with acts, and attendant girls with revealing dresses were the hallmark of the place since the very early days. But later on, the place turned out to be much more striking when the well known singer and dancer, Josephine Baker, wearing next to nothing, came forward with the Danse sauvage. And so erotic dancing found its way to cabaret. It’s not hard to imagine why a wealthy painter like Manet would spend lots of his time wondering about in Folies-Bergeres and also why his last painting allocated to depicting the place.

In “The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” (1882), a girl is standing behind the counter with long, straight bangs which although give her a seductive look, is more likely to be a working class hair style at the time. There is also an unusual flower bouquet fixed to her bodice and to make it even more interesting, there is a bowl of oranges on the counter which Manet used to paint when referring to a prostitute! In the mirror on the wall, behind the girl, you can see that the people in the cabaret are drinking and talking while paying the least attention to the juggler on the far end of the upper left, that of whom only her legs can be seen. But the enigmatic part of the painting remains the picture of a staring gentleman in the mirror who in a way seems to be in front of the girl which in this case it’s hard to understand the real spatial location of him in the bar because no part of him can be seen out of the mirror. Many critics believed that Manet cheated a bit by changing the real perspective of the objects including the angle of the mirror in order to create a mysterious sight. However in 2001, Dr. Malcolm Park, an Australian art historian, showed how it’s basically possible to set everything exactly in the same way without cheating. His effort, I believe, revealed the deceiving aspect of gazes and Manet’s old interest in capturing the loneliness in the presence of the others; the man in fact does not look at the girl and nor does the girl look at him.


Ambiguity, and the Engagement of spatial illusion within the surface of Manet’s Paintings (Sydney: University of NSW, 2001)

Now I try to imagine Manet cunningly about to paint his last work; he’d just turned 50 when late complications of syphilis added to his old misery of joints’ pain and rheumatism. He no longer could walk easily and his leg seemed to be indifferent toward his will. The pain was excruciating! Money was not a problem but doctors were unable to provide any ease. Part of his body was almost paralyzed. His doctor believed that his leg should be amputated. Years before, When Manet’s father passed away, he got married to Suzanne, his childhood piano teacher who also was his father’s mistress! And now the only ones around were his wife and his (or his father’s) son, Leon.


Manet sadly was aware of what was expected of him in life, and so as a farewell work he picked the place that could summarize the happiness and wealth; i.e. Folies-Bergeres. In the painting though, the glory and ecstasy of Folies-Bergeres has been reflected in a mirror behind the bartender; an allegory of what he left behind, what that’s passed. If that’s so, the girl’s eyes can not be hers, they should be Manet’s. Everything starts to make sense to me; the only eyes in all his paintings that made contact with ours, were his eyes; that was him who looked at us through the eyes of that naked girl in “The luncheon on the grass” to say look at me, this is the body of yours, this is you without any piece of cloth to hide yourself behind, the clothes that makes you different than others, the clothes that makes you a lord or a slave, this is you in your ultimate equality. That was him who stared at us in the “The Railway” to invite us to see the perplexity of change in the modern world with all the smoke in the background. And this is him in the bar that no longer invites us, challenges us or accuses us. He is bewildered and desolate but at the same time he never praised life as masterfully as he does in his last look.

The doctor was right; the left foot needed to be amputated, it was gangrenous. But even that, did not help Manet and eleven days after, he died. There are many things that one can remember about his paintings but there is one thing that can not be forgotten; the distant gaze of a girl behind a counter in Folies-Bergeres in 1882.


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