As a flâneur (Baudelaire's term for a person of the crowd and the ideal Modern artist), Manet spent much of his time in the social circle of the French night life. This is a part of society that is usually vibrant with energy and activity, as any partaker in contemporary night-life crowds can say (some things never change); but the true Modern artist always keenly observes all aspects of the scene, looking for that Post-Victorian truth to get him through the challenging and confusing world of industrialized Modernism. And when Édouard Manet visited the Parisian nightclub, Folies-Bergère, one evening very near the artist's relatively brief life, one sees here, in his painting of The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a recreation of what he saw and found noteworthy.
This woman, by the way, is no fiction. Historians have miraculously been able to track down her name and identity, but Manet painted her here as just another bartender. The scene is very up-front. A female server behind a counter stands in waiting and stares at us, the viewer, as though we were her next customer. In front of her, on the countertop is a variety of bottled wines and other libations commonplace enough for a barroom setting; and we also see a bowl of oranges and a vase of flowers (again, almost connotative of a still life within the painting, invoking that idea of the artist's studio once more). Behind the woman, we see reflected through a mirror the nightclub of the Folies-Bergère, teeming with life. Through this window we get the atmospheric feel of the environment, but Manet has interrupted the gaiety of Paris's night life to focus on this lone woman to the side of all the action and conversation, a mere server who is otherwise nameless to us (that is, until now). In this is implied that Manet has stepped away from the crowd for a moment to approach this person.
But the woman is a part of the crowd; that must be keenly grasped. The artist has singled her out, but the fact that her face appears before a mirror reflecting all the other faces of the Parisian crowd blends her in with all of those other people and connects her to the common organism of French society. (Make sense?) But the artist, as I said, has singled her out from the multitude and, what's more, centered her in the very middle of the painting. There is something to be said of this shift in focus that stands alone as a working of Modernist thought. A flâneur must be in and among the crowd, after all, to pick out the singular truths of people, politics, and Modern life—singular truths made through observations. This painting is an observation made by Édouard Manet, and it is painted here as a work of art to convey a truth to the viewer. So, what are we really looking at?
We are facing the woman directly, and the woman is looking back at us. The bar table stands between us; she's got her hands resting on it. In the mirror behind her, we see the counter reflected, the visitors of the nightclub above (as we've established), and even the woman's back; but we also see a tall, burly, mustached man in the far-right reflection of the mirror, someone who is facing the woman and whom the woman appears to be facing as well. That's us. Manet has painted the viewer into the painting. That's pretty insane, if you think about it. I mean, we have seen this done before stylistically in the court painting of Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez and (who could forget) the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan van Eyck, but here the interaction between viewer and painted figure seems more starkly immediate and candid, does it not? No matter at what distance you are standing, the mirror image on the right establishes you two as interlocked in direct proximity and, what's more, unblinking eye contact. We talk about looking at this work of art, but I don't know what is more strange: that we can look at the representational image of a woman who is now (like the woman in The Railway) long gone yet, through the painting, still emblematically as vibrant and colorful as ever; or that she's looking back at us, too. The moment we stare at this painting, we enter into it, like the man in the far-right reflection of the mirror walking up to the counter. Manet pictures art as something inherently interactive on a visual level which is also interactive on a psychological level. Ideas, observations, and opinions are being tossed out to us when we look at paintings, and these radiate off the canvas like particles of light through the air, showing us the colors of the artist's mind, so to speak. The painting, then, is a living entity in the sense that ideas and beliefs can travel through a crowd like a virus. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote just four years after this painting's creation a famous line of his; that "when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
Now to the woman herself. She is centered, as I said, in the painting, standing quite tall, and she seems to dominate the scene with a powerful presence. She fills a clear and very pronounced vertical line that stretches the height of the canvas, causing our eyes to scan up and down to get a full view of her. It's almost as if she is as much on display as the bowl of oranges and the small vase of flowers on the counter—she has a small cluster of flowers pinned to the front of her dress in a strategic location. Manet intentionally painted this serveuse so forthright and kind of in-your-face as a subliminal statement about what he had noticed as a flâneur in his observations of the Parisian night life. I think I had mentioned that prostitution was at an all-time high in Victorian England; it had also grown to become a public controversy in 19th century France. An article in The Economist on francophone female prostitution from July 2012, asserted that "by 1840 there were some 200 brothels in Paris" alone. The Modernist artist, the flâneur according to Baudelaire's standard, would place himself among this crowd and use his observations therein to inspire his art and give him a sense of the true nature of the Modern world. Manet paints it as a tragic case. The woman has her sleeves up, ready to serve but also ready to be served herself should her next guest pay her for a sexual favor. Her body stands up from the counter just as though she were merely another object, like the wine bottles, awaiting use, and her stark centeredness within the frame of the painting puts her on display to the viewer as, essentially, eye candy. The painting's focal epicenter, we see, is her breasts. But, looking at her face, we see the artist has painted a sad, dull, tired expression. Her eyes most distinctly betray her emotion and physical exhaustion. If you ask me, they are some of the most profound eyes ever to be painted in the history of Western art (like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa). And he has (Manet) again painted her with hasty brushstrokes and blurred lines to indicate her always busy lifestyle and the tireless, thankless, joyless work which forever keeps her on the go. We are meant to feel sorry for her. Let's face it, she's miserable!—but that kind of misery that nevertheless still carries on with the tasks at hand, though in a kind of fog. (Have you ever felt that way? I hope not; but if you have, you know what I'm talking about.) Her eyes are glazed over with a dreamy absence of mind. She has been brought, through the endless, melancholy toil of her tragic life, to a place where she appears emotionally numb and unfeeling, explaining the reason why she stares so desolately and blankly at us from the painting. She only now goes through the motions, mechanically, having evidently lost some part of herself. This profound face Manet masterfully paints as the face of the Victorian-wasted man (and woman) whose very soul has been robbed of him by the laborious oppression of the Modern industrial lifestyle. If this real-life bartender, whom the artist came across one night while simply hanging out among the crowd, appears in Manet's painting to have lost her emotional spirit, then it is a poignant observation on the Modern scene as a whole; that mankind's own soul, his (and her) very humanity, has been lost in this overshadowing commercial-industrial metropolis, and that people are themselves at risk of turning into mere machines. And this is a theme that has been carried on into today's Postmodern society as well.