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The Importance of Manet’s Conceptualization in Olympia and The Bar at the Folies-Bergère

By Canadian artist Charles Moffat - circa 2001.

Edouard Manet put a lot of thought into the conceptualization of his paintings Olympia and The Bar at the Folies-Bergère (See Endnotes). His method of drawing and painting, the influence of Japanese art and contemporary photography on his style, his oil sketches and preliminary paintings, his quest for models that suited the idea he had conceptualized, his choices with regards to theme, symbolism and expression all required a great deal of contemplative thought with regards to how he planned, conceptualized and implemented an art piece. Manet’s conceptualization and the way he wanted Olympia and The Bar at the Folies-Bergère two paintings to look when they were finished is ultimately important and intrinsic to understanding these two portraits and the allegorical people they represent.

Right: Study of Olympia, 1863

Manet’s contemporaries wrote about his conceptual nature, as Georges Jeanniot did after he visited Manet’s studio in January 1882 (See Endnotes):

"When I returned to Paris, in January 1882, the first visit I paid was to Manet. He was then painting The Bar at the Folies-Bergère and the model, a pretty girl, was posing behind a table laden with food and bottles. He recognized me immediately, held out his hand and said: “It’s a most irritating, forgive me, I have to remain seated, I’ve got a bad foot. Do sit down.

I took a chair behind him and watched him work. Although he painted his pictures from the model, Manet did not copy nature at all; I became aware of his magisterial simplifications; the head of his woman had a sense of depth, but the modelling was not obtained with the means that nature offered him. Everything was abridged; the tones were clearer, the colours more vivid, the values closer, the tones more varied...

... He (Manet) said things such as the following: “In art, conciseness is both a necessity and a luxury; a concise man provokes thought, a wordy man provokes boredom; always move towards conciseness. In the figure, look for the main light and the main shadow, the rest will come of itself: often, it amounts to very little.”

The painting Jeanniot witnessed may have been an oil sketch or the final piece, Jeanniot does not make reference to which and the exact date of the oil sketch is not firmly known. What is important is Manet’s belief in conceptualizing his portraits, in order to get a more concise meaning across to the viewer. If a painter goes towards almost photographic quality painting, then the meaning of the work may become lost due to its over-emphasis on the ‘real’. A photograph of a barmaid at the Folies-Bergère would have very little meaning in comparison, but because painting allows the artist to warp the painting to what they want to see, they can work the painting in a conceptual way in order to get a dramatically different atmosphere and theme.

The ‘conciseness’ of Manet’s painting can best be shown by his earlier work, Olympia, but even more so by looking at the preliminary paintings for Olympia. His 1863 oil sketch (See Endnotes) shows the model for Olympia, complete with maid, cat and flowers, but there is only light shading on her upper torso, and the legs are nothing more than narrow lines. Her face is simplified to the extent that it borders on resembling modern Japanese Animation.

Right: Olympia, 1865

Which is an interesting note when you consider Manet’s Portrait of Emile Zola. The Japanese (See Endnotes) print is placed right beside Olympia in the upper right hand corner. This suggests that Manet was more than a little effected by the imported Japanese styles. If he indeed studied the Japanese drawing style and used it, then it would explain the definitive lines that make up Olympia’s body, the scant shading, the small mouth, the small pointed nose and the large staring eyes (See Endnotes).

Titian’s Venus of Urbino, for which Olympia is considered to be a mockery of, was painted in 1857 and in the following years of 1858 until 1864 Manet did several sketches of reclining nudes (Sketch 1 / Sketch 2), using different poses, and at least one that had no face (See Endnotes). The fact that this latter sketch has no face indicates that Manet was debating over how to draw to face, and it is likely that he waited until he found a suitable model. There is a second nearly-identical sketch which does have a face, but it is blurry and very minimalistic which means it may have simply been drawn on, with no model whatsoever. What this points to is that Manet must have thought it was important for him to have a model who suited his conceptual idea of what Olympia should look like.

Antonin Proust recorded many of his conversations with Manet (See Endnotes), for which there are notable mentioning on the topic of Olympia:

Sir Frederick Leighton, the president of the Royal Academy of Art in London... was here yesterday with Henri Hecht who introduced me to him a few days earlier. I was painting Madame Guillemet. Leon had gone out and the famous painter was in my way. He wandered about the studio and stopped in front of the Skating Rink, saying: “It’s very good but, Monsieur Manet, don’t you think that the outlines are not well enough defined and that the figures dance too much?” I replied “ They’re not dancing, they’re skating; but you’re right, they do move and when people are moving, I can’t freeze them on the canvas. As a matter of fact, sir, I have been told the outlines of Olympia are too well defined, so that makes up for it.” He realized he was annoying me and went away...

The conceptualization of the skating figures with their blurry figures shows that Manet drew a line between moving figures and static figures. His moving figures are blurred in order to create the idea of movement and speed, whereas his static non-moving figures are shown with sharp, well defined outlines in order to emphasize their lack of movement.

In Olympia the only things that are blurred, and therefore has movement, are the cat, the cat’s tail which is upraised and is likely twitching back and forth, the maid and the flowers. The maid and flowers are not very blurry, but the blurriness of the background and the slight brushwork around the edge of her dress and her bonnet which suggests movement.

The Sketch for The Bar at the Folies-Bergère shows a tall blonde barmaid with raised hair, plus her identical blonde reflection, has the barmaid as well-defined with only slight blurriness, whereas he background is a mix of black and white and colour, all of which is blurred and suggests a raucous and very moving evening crowd. The chandelier reflected in the mirror is blurred and seems to shimmer from constantly moving glass crystal pieces.

Right: Study of The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881

The Bar at the Folies-Bergère (the final piece) however is interesting because the central figure of the barmaid is static and has well defined outlines, whereas her reflection is blurred around the edges and suggests movement (See Endnotes), which is indicative that this may not be a reflection. The bottles, oranges and the bar itself are well defined, but the crowd in the background varies between levels of blurriness and staticness based upon the amount of movement represented in their actions. The trapeze artist’s legs in the upper left have blurry outlines. The chandeliers, like the sketch, still seem to shimmer and move.

It is important, in a historical context, to notice the role of photography and its effect on Manet’s art. He frequently took photographs of his art and sent it to friends, art dealers, critics and curators. During the Franco-Prussian war, Manet carried a photograph of his wife Suzanne with him to comfort him, and in July 1880 he wrote a letter in which he requested a photograph of Isabelle Lemonnier so that he could get a “better likeness” (See Endnotes). With these examples in mind, we can conclude that Manet had frequent contact with photography and was familiar with how it can become blurry due to exposure times and movement during the exposure. The influence of photography resulted in his using blurriness in a conceptual manner to help him with his paintings in order to show movement.

In the same letter in which he requested the photograph he also laments “if only I had the model in front of me.” In other discussions with Antonin Proust he emphasizes the importance of models and reworking paintings:

That’s good advice... all the more so since I may well be forced to leave it at that, as so often happens when the model doesn’t come back. That’s always been my principal concern, to make sure of getting regular sittings. Whenever I start something, I’m always afraid the model will let me down... They come, they pose, then away they go, telling themselves that he can finish it off on his own. Well no, one can’t finish anything on one’s own, particularly since one only finishes on the day one starts, and that means starting often and having plenty of days available.

The final model for The Bar at the Folies-Bergère also posed for several portraits of herself (indicating that she was available for many sittings, helping Manet to conceptualize what he wanted) in which she is depicted with sharp outlines, a black hat and almost cartoonic clothing. Her eyelids are slightly blurry, suggesting blinking. This ‘blinking-ness’ is also found in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère in which her eye appears to be twitching.

Right: The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881

Griselda Pollock suggests (See Endnotes) that in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère the barmaid is being sexually propositioned by a man with a moustache and that she has adopted a resigned expression. Her eye twitching, if that is indeed Manet’s intention, could be symbolic of repressed anger at being propositioned.

Olympia in comparison, which took Manet six to seven years just to find a model that suited it, also has an expression of resignedness, but her stare is more bold as if she has grown accustomed to being stared at. The fact that Manet uses this resigned expression in multiple paintings indicates he was trying to make a statement about feelings of repressed women in his society.

To continue dissecting Olympia, her left hand is firmly planted over her ‘livelihood’ showing that while she may depend on the lechery of men, she is still in control of that part of her body. The use of the shoes, ribbons, bracelet, earrings and bow lend to making it blatant to the viewer what her profession is, while the black maid bringing flowers from an admirer and the cat is symbolic of animal activity and sexuality. The cat’s tail is raised in a mockery of a phallus.

Right:Detail of Olympia's Hand

This phallic symbolism and sexual connotations are also used in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère where the bottles are phallic, the trapeze artist is sexual activity, the chandeliers are round and vaginal, and even the barmaid’s face, necklace and bodice flowers are arranged like a vulvas. The upper cut of her jacket makes her breasts appear as if she were serving her breasts and cleavage on a serving tray, and lower cut has a triangle shape with a dark groove down the middle, again symbolizing a vulva. The flowers near her hand symbolize both fertility and are phallic. If there is indeed a mirror behind her, then it provides the voyeur with twin views of her hourglass waist which would only be possible if her dress had a built in corset.

This degree of complexity and symbolism (in both pieces) cannot be made by chance and indicates Manet had done a great level of thinking with regards to how to compose the piece and that the importance of his conceptualization was deeply rooted in how he made his paintings.

It is important to note that Olympia and The Bar at the Folies-Bergère are not actually portraits because the characters in them represent fictionalized/allegorical people in a narrative setting. The models however, were real people, and the manner that Manet treats his subject is near identical to the way he portrays real people. Indeed, what is ‘real’ people? Half of everything shown in a portrait is fake and contrived, fake to the extent that it is the way the person ‘wants’ to be portrayed. Portraits make the sitters very self-conscious about the way they want to look and the way they want people to view them. The allegorical figures in these two paintings are also self-conscious, mostly of their role in society and how others view their role in society. Thus, the allegorical figures in the two paintings could be considered to be equally as real as actual portraits, if not more so on the basis that Manet has conceptualized them in such a manner that makes them symbolic of a very real part of society.

T. A. Gronberg writes in the introduction (See Endnotes) of Manet: A Retrospective the following:

The institutionalization of Modernism may account to a large extent for the prominence accorded to Manet’s work. But this alone does not seem adequately to explain the almost obsessive interest which certain canvases - the Olympia and The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for example - seem to generate in audiences, scholars and critics, today as much as a hundred years ago. It is perhaps no coincidence that both of these modern life subjects represent, in very different ways, the confrontation of men and women in a modern urban environment... his final major Salon piece The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, working-class women are represented in juxtoposition to bourgeois male customers in ways which construct femininity as visual spectacle... ... the woman represented in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère were employed not merely to serve and encourage the purchase of drinks, but were themselves objects of consumption as prostitutes. The Bar at the Folies-Bergère is thus a representation of the potential consumption of femininity (the barmaid as prostitute) as well as being itself as object of visual consumption, activating desire in the viewer through the production of woman as spectacle.

Gronberg’s comments raises an interesting point in my mind to whether Manet was sincerely trying to make a comment about the repression of women in society, or whether he was simply a “sexist pig”. It is one thing to portray women in a realistic fashion, but quite another to see if he was actually supportive of their station in society and wished them to remain at that level. Manet did paint a large number of women in his lifetime, and more than a few of those paintings were nudes. One of the few clues he provides is the fact that none of them appear to be happy. And if Manet is, to some extent, a realist painter painting modern life, then he was painting them as they really were: Not happy. If he had conceptualized them as being happy he certainly would have painted them as such. Instead he has painted their expressions in a manner that suggests they are not happy with their place in life, and thus Manet appears to be sympathetic to their plight.

In conclusion, before this essay (See Endnotes) overflows, the sheer complexity and overlapping facets of Olympia and The Bar at the Folies-Bergère could only have been made possible due to Manet’s intense conceptualization of what he wanted the final pieces to be and how he wanted them to be received by the public eye. The allegorical people at the centre of these two portraits are the result of years of thought, planning, drawing and preparation for what is now considered to be two of his greatest masterpieces. Manet’s vision of Olympia and The Bar at the Folies-Bergère is complete.

Endnotes & Notes on Research:

  • Just a tip that you may wish to pass on to students in future classes: If they skip to the Index at the back of all the books they find, there is usually a notation of every location in the book that it mentions specific pieces. This really helps to speed up research time (I believe) and they can find the best commentaries faster this way.
  • I also managed to stumble upon two very good books (Manet By Himself and Manet: A Retrospective, listed in the bibliography) for which they were literally filled with translated letters by Manet himself, letters, correspondence, journals and reflections by his contemporaries. The letters from Manet are especially fascinating (my opinion, as a fellow painter) with regards to his theories of light, colouring, method(s) of painting and drawing, and philosophical reflections on life in general. While reading it I find myself picking up insights on how to make better paintings. Not many books can do that.
  • I also would like to note that my comparison of Manet’s style to Japanese drawing is purely my own idea. I did not find any documentation with regards to that (nor did I look) although it is certainly possible that someone else has also made that connection. It is purely my own affection for Japanese Anime that allowed me to make that insight.
  • I have chosen to focus on these two specific pieces because they illustrate my points precisely, and also because of the array of preliminary paintings and sketches that are available for both pieces, and lastly because of the wide variety of historical commentary on the two pieces.
  • Page 173 of Gronberg’s Manet, A Retrospective. See Bibliography.
  • See Figure #3 in the Image Appendix at the end of this essay.
  • You can tell it is Japanese from the topknot on the figure. Mandarin and Cantonese art and hair styles of the time never had topknots to my knowledge.
  • I likely could write an entire second essay comparing his work to Japanese Animation (also called Anime).
  • “Big Eyes and Small Mouth” is the most common way of describing modern Anime, to the extent there is even an Anime RPG game out by that name.
  • These particular recordings can be found on page 183 of Manet By Himself.
  • I firmly believe it is NOT a mirror. This is a topic for a separate essay, but because of the eternal debate about this I must therefore make my points for it not being a mirror, for it would be gross incompetence on my part not to mention this. The second barmaid has no earrings, is moving, does not have a raised colar, and the flowers on her arm are placed in a different direction. There is no bowl of oranges beside the second barmaid, diddo for the champagne bottles. The bottles themselves are situated farther away from the edge of the bar in comparison to the bottles beside the central barmaid. Behind the bottles and extended towards the stage there is a reflection of the people in the background, which means the people in the background are definitely not a reflection because a mirror cannot reflect itself.
  • Page 251 of Manet By Himself.
  • Chapter 12 of Twelve Views of Manet’s Bar. See Bibliography.
  • Page 31.
  • Finding a comment that mentions both pieces was a bit of luck, but the things that he says are important because it relates how Manet had conceptualized both pieces in a similar fashion with regards to making both the barmaid and Olympia into commodities.
  • Pardon the frequent cropping. Gronberg is incredibly longwinded and likes to waste paper.
  • With rare exceptions.
  • I admit I tend to blur the line between essay and editorial sometimes.
  • Although I did once find a book on mosaics that was incredible with regards to light reflections and placing of the glass, but sadly no one does mosaics anymore and there is no one at York University who teaches it (to my knowledge).


    Berti, Luciano. Manet. Novara, Instito Geografico De Agostino S.p.A., 1968.

    Collins, Bradford R., Ed. Twelve Views of Manet’s Bar. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    Eisenman, Stephen F.. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History. London: Thames and Hudson Limited, 1994.

    Gronberg, T. A., Ed. Manet: A Retrospective. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1988.

    Leveque, Jean-Jacques. Manet. Italy: Editions Siloe Paris, 1983.

    Wilson-Bareau, Juliet, Ed. Manet By Himself, Correspondence & Conversation. London: Macdonald & Company Limited, 1991.

    Wilson-Bareau, Juliet. Manet, Monet and the Gare Saint-Lazare. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

    Images Appendix:

    Study of Olympia, 1863

    Olympia, 1865

    Detail of Olympia's Hand

    Study of The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881

    The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881

    Reclining Nude c.1859

    Reclining Nude c.1861

    Portrait of Emile Zola 1868

    Portrait of the Model c.1880

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