French painter Édouard Manet was seen as the leader of Impressionism although he never took part in impressionism exhibitions. He received little recognition and even ridiculed by the art world of Paris during his lifetime but was later respected as the father of Impressionism and the founder of Modernism after his death. Among some 900 paintings Manet painted during his lifetime, this painting was his last major work.
The background in the painting is the Folies-Bergère, the best cabaret in Paris. It was a high-end nightclub famous for dance, opera, circus, and prostitution. The woman in the center is a real person known as Suzon, who actually worked at the nightclub as a bartender. She is dressed in a black low-cut dress, styling it up with a pendant and corsages. She was very popular with customers due to her pretty and sophisticated appearance. The mirror in the back shows the bustle of cabaret goers. Well-dressed Parisians are enjoying a circus while drinking under the colorful lights. The feet of a trapeze artist shows in the upper left-hand corner and on the right is a gentleman wearing a silk hat and the back of Suzon reflected in the mirror. The angles and sizes of the figures in the painting are unnatural as Manet deliberately ignored the laws of classical perspective.
The most notable in the painting is the expression on Suzon’s face. For a bartender, who is engaging with a customer, her face is expressionless. It looks as if she does not have the energy to put on a kind smile. It is just the look of a tired city worker having a rough day. Her cheeks are flushed either from drinking or due to the heat in the room.
Manet’s health was fading when he was working on the painting. Suzon is staring at us with her expressionless face as if she is saying, “Are you having a hard time? Me too,” on behalf of the painter. The reason why we relate to the expression on the face of a 19th-century Parisian woman is perhaps because our lives are also tough and hard.