In our discussion of the visual culture of 19th century modern life, particularly in the new and improved city of Paris, we looked at a painting by Édouard Manet called A Bar at the Folies-Bergères (1882). In this painting, the focus is on a young barmaid standing behind the counter she serves from; her expression is somewhat displeased, perhaps bored or annoyed. Behind her, a mirror takes up the whole background and reflects the twinkling lights and bustling crowd of the nightclub. In the reflection, we can also see a well-dressed man standing at the bar as if to order a drink.
During the lesson, we were able to watch a video of Dr. Griselda Pollock discussing the painting, in which she briefly notes that the barmaid is gloveless, saying that this hints at some sexual ambiguity, and that the man in front of the bar might be propositioning her. This changed my perspective on the painting and imbued it with new meaning, and I wanted to know more. How do the gloves imply sexual ambiguity? What other hints are there that she is being solicited for sex?
In her dissertation, Rebecca Gessert argues that gloves (or the lack of them) are a recurring trope in Manet’s work starting in 1871 and that he uses them for a specific reason. She states that painting gloved and gloveless people was to “insist on the role and power of the artist in fashioning not the body, but the canvas” through the juxtaposition of cloth and skin; in other words, Manet wanted to showcase his artistic eye, especially when he had been criticized before for his detail-less hands.1 But this has little to do with the relationship between the woman and the man, leading me to believe the gloves are irrelevant, and that there are other reasons to believe that the man is propositioning the barmaid.
With further research, I discovered that this reading of the painting is very common. In Chapter 6 of Katherine Mullin’s book Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality and Modernity, she describes barmaids in the 19th century as “naturally fitting the ‘sex-problem’ genre” and as having “associations with vulgar over-exposure”.2 So, barmaids automatically brought a connotation of sexuality in both art and literature, due to their perception in the eyes of real-life society. Ruth E. Iskin writes that Manet’s barmaid is presumed to be for sale since the painting revolves around seduction and selling: this is accomplished by surrounding an “available” woman with other mass-produced commodities and even having a reproduction of the woman herself, via the mirror.3 We discussed in class that the fast-paced age of consumption had already begun in Paris, and this research has shown me that the perception of working women as objects for purchase is, ostensibly, an extension of this new era (we also saw, in another lesson, that many working women often also resorted to prostitution to make ends meet, meaning the connection between women working and simultaneously being sexually “for sale” was not a foreign concept in the 1800s).
Linda Nochlin also writes that one of the prevailing ideological assumptions in 19th century French society (and most Western societies) was the domination of women by men and that the middle-to-upper class white Frenchmen are “naturally” and limitlessly entitled to women’s bodies.4 Thus, men approaching women at work to solicit them likely believed they had the right to, their gender automatically granting them such authority and ownership. This idea would be clear to an 1880s audience, who lived in a society that was organized around and functioned based upon this hierarchy and would be able to read this dynamic in the painting. This ideological assumption is the most important factor in this work, and one that continues today; an ideological assumption forms the foundation for any belief system, discipline, or institution, and art history is no exception. The paintings we view, whether in university courses or in galleries, can be and are often made with this assumption informing both the artist’s and our own gazes. Again, as we’ve learned several times, images are never neutral. The underlying implication of A Bar at the Folies-Bergères is proof that many artworks are literally founded on these social assumptions, which seep deeply into all aspects of the piece (such as subject, composition, lighting, etc). My research has emphasized that it is important to be mindful and critical of this fact, so we can recognize it when we encounter it, then challenge it as much as we can.