Famous Painters: Edouard Manet
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
One of the most famous painters of the 19th century, Edouard Manet (1832-1883) bridged the art movements from Realism to Impressionism, despite his initial rejection of Impressionist painters. One of the best known (and most discussed) Manet paintings is A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.
Like many Manet paintings, Manet incorporated various riddles, leading to multiple intrepretations:
behind the barmaid, the scene is crammed with festive and gay Parisian patrons, who starkly contrast with the melancholic, blank visage of the barmaid. Is Manet juxtaposing the carefree life of upper classes with the alienation of the urban working class?
Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882. Oil on canvas, 37 4/5" by 51 1/5". Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
the mirror behind the barmaid presents a riddle of visual contradiction. The reflection on the right, which initially appears to be that of the barmaid, doesn't align or reconcile with the reflection she'd logically project, or with the horizontal expanse of the bar.
is the top-hatted man at the far right propositioning the barmaid, or merely approaching to purchase food and drink? Proponents of the former cite evidence that some barmaids were prostitutes, contending that the distorted reflection is indicative of her dual roles.
I was content with these ambiguous interpretations until I read The Language of Flowers, a fictional book that recounts the troubled life of 18 year old Victoria Jones, who has "aged out" of foster care, leaving her adrift and homeless. One of her foster mothers taught her the Victorian language of flowers, in which each species is associated with a unique meaning; flowers were used to communicate feelings in lieu of words. Nettles symbolize cruelty; a daisy, innocence.
Take this to Manet's flowers on the bartop. The vase holds a pink rose ("Grace" in the language of flowers) and a peony (read "Anger"). My best hunch about the barmaid's triangular corsage (an unsubtle sexual allusion) is that these are dianthus. "Make haste", says the language of flowers. And between the reflection on the right and the male patron peeks an iris, for "Message".
Could Edouard Manet, whose painting career overlapped Victorian usage of the language of flowers, be sending a message?
I don't know (though I can well imagine the barmaid wishing to convey each of these sentiments).
I do know that the U. S. foster care system is a national disgrace, assuming that at 18 years of age, youth are capable of being independent. At 18? Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers, started the Camelia Network to support youth who are transitioning from foster care to independence. "Camelia", in the language of flowers, means my destiny is in your hands.
In my home state of Massachusetts, 75% of youth who age out of foster care become unemployed or underemployed; 80% of prison inmates here were once in foster care.
The solution feels local. In the Boston area, we have More than Words, a social enterprise that teaches youth the basics of running on-line and physical bookstores while they work with transition counselors on their futures. After mastering this business job and the "You job", 89% of these youth have diplomas or equivalents two years after starting with More than Words. It's astonishing what empowered youth can do, when given the opportunity and challenge.
And another incredible part? The books, CDs, DVDs and audio books sold at More than Words are all donated, with sale proceeds contributing 30% of operational costs.
I'll leave the riddles to Manet paintings... and stick with the obvious, like More than Words.
Are you in awe of famous artwork like A Bar at the Folies-Bergere?
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