In his influential essay, The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863, the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire stated that if art was to be relevant, it must concern itself with modernity. Baudelaire was unsympathetic to the type of paintings based on classical mythology and featuring antique costume that prevailed in the annual Salon exhibitions.
In The Painter of Modern Life Baudelaire describes a character called the flâneur, or casual man of leisure, who was able to experience the city as a detached spectator; who was able to 'be at the centre of the world' and yet 'remain hidden' from it. Baudelaire declared that the artist must aspire to be a flâneur. The Painter of Modern Life celebrates the work of the illustrator, Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire describes as 'a passionate lover of crowds and incognitos'.
Guys's Deux grisettes et deux soldats (c.1860) in the Courtauld collection is a vignette of social observation from contemporary Parisian life. A grisette was a young woman of the lower classes who was fond of the company of men. The woman on the right is apparently flirting with the soldier by lifting up her skirt and showing her ankle. The Courtauld's Deux Femmes aux manchons (c.1864) demonstrates Guys's fascination with female fashion. The type of crinolines worn by the women and their high hairstyles indicate that they are women from the upper classes of Parisian society. In Guy's work Baudelaire saw 'a speed of execution' that he felt was comparative to the 'rapid movement' of modern life.
Baudelaire's rallying cry to artists to paint modern subjects, particularly the urban variety of Paris, was greeted with enthusiasm by the Impressionists. The artist whose work most clearly responds to Baudelaire's account of the artist as flâneur is probably Edouard Manet, who had close contact with the critic from about 1858. The sheer pace of modern living in nineteenth-century Paris was often expressed by contemporaries as confusing and incomprehensible. Many Impressionist paintings present a complex interplay of elements that prevent any straightforward reading of the relationships depicted. Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is one such work.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is the only Impressionist painting in the Courtauld collection to have been exhibited at the Salon, where it was shown in 1882, a year before Manet died. The Folies-Bergère was one of the most fashionable cafés-concerts in Paris. Manet based the view of the interior on some sketches made inside the Folies-Bergère itself. He also used one of the barmaids from the bar as a model. The touches of white paint that are superimposed here and there onto the scene behind the barmaid indicate that the view of the people in the boxes is in fact a reflection - the white paint translating as smudges on a large mirror.
Manet's painting caused a stir among the Salon critics, who focussed on the apparent mistakes made by the artist in his depiction of the relationships between real objects and their reflections. The figure of the barmaid, it was noted, is too far away from her reflection. The male customer's close proximity to the woman, as shown in the mirror, suggests that he is standing directly in front of the bar - which evidently isn't the case.
Reviews published at the time could not decide if the barmaid was animated or listless. From the back, as reflected in the mirror, she appears pert and engaged, but from the front her face appears tired and subdued. The two views do not correspond and imply that her public face belies her real feelings. Many contemporary commentators felt uneasy about the social and moral status of places like the Folies-Bergère, which were the regular haunts of prostitutes. The women who worked behind the bars were known colloquially as 'vendors of consolation', because they often took up customer's offers of sex to supplement their meagre wages. The disparity between the barmaid and her reflection is a calculated device on the part of Manet to imply the social ambiguity of her environment.