My Favourite Painting: Rowley Leigh

'I suspect it was the strange, cool vacancy in the girl’s eyes that was so compelling'

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881–2, by Edouard Manet (1832–83), 38in by 51in, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Bridgeman Images.

Rowley Leigh says:
‘I was probably 16 when I first saw this picture, dominating a room in the Courtauld Institute in Woburn Square. Perhaps my adolescent self was intrigued by the puzzle posed by the images in the mirror not corresponding to what we think we see in front of us; perhaps the picture resonated with a lifelong attraction to bars and restaurants, especially those of the Paris demi-mondaine? However, I suspect it was the strange, cool vacancy in the girl’s eyes that was so compelling. That mixture of availability and detachment remains just as beguiling, and just as contemporary, to me now, nearly 40 years later.’

Chef, restaurateur and journalist Rowley Leigh is a pioneer of modern Anglo-French cooking. He is the head chef/proprietor of the French bistro Le Café Anglais in London.

John McEwen comments:
‘The novelist George Moore described sitting for Manet: ‘Strictly speaking he had no method; painting with him was pure instinct… That frank, fearless, prompt nature manifested itself in everything that concerned him—in his large plain studio, full of light as a conservatory; in his simple, scrupulous clothes, and yet with a touch of the dandy about them; in decisive speech, quick, hearty, and informed with a manly and sincere understanding of life. Never was an artist’s inner nature in more direct conformity with his work.’

This painting was done soon after Manet received the Legion of Honour and when he had already been ill for several years with the medical condition that would kill him the following April. It was his last large-scale celebration of Parisian life. As in his famous Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, which had caused such a rumpus 20 years before, the viewer’s eye is met with the gaze of the female focal point. Here, it is inward, as if the barmaid, whose name was Suzon, is only half concentrating. Her reflection’s lack of correspondence remains a puzzle.

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In the mirror, Manet wittily shows the green-shod feet of a trapeze artist (upper left) and the identifiable faces are all of friends. The oranges may symbolise Suzon’s availability as a prostitute. The beer is English Bass Pale Ale, perhaps a post-Franco-Prussian War dig at the Germans. The incongruous vase of roses is another of those floral adieus of Manet’s last years. ‘I shall do some more flowers at the end, like Manet did,’ Lucian Freud once assured me. Sadly, it seems he forgot.’

This article was first published in Country Life, April 9, 2014