This Famous Manet Painting Was an Early Example of Product Placement
Product placement is often thought of as a modern phenomenon, saturating television, film, and social media content with blatant commercialism.
And yet the roots of visual product placement can be seen since the time of the Industrial Revolution, running parallel with the rise of consumer culture. Unsurprisingly, the influence of the new consumer society on art was perhaps most apparent in Paris, then the undisputed cultural capital of the world.
Detail of Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881–82. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Indeed, one of French artist Édouard Manet’s most beloved paintings, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), is generally regarded as one of the first uses of product placement. Flanking the spectacularly bored barmaid on either side sits a brown bottle with a red triangle emblazoned on its label. This is the mark of Bass Brewery, which had become the first company to register a trademark in the U.K. in 1876.
Of course, this is not your typical fawning product placement, à la Reese’s Pieces in E.T. (1982). As art scholar and author Kelly Grovier wrote for the BBC, the formal elements of Manet’s painting coalesce in a scathing indictment of consumer society. Most notably, Manet mimics the Bass insignia with a red floral arrangement strategically placed on the woman’s bosom. This detail, Grovier explains, is critical to understanding the composition. Many of the barmaids at the Folies-Bergère were sex workers, and it can be inferred that this woman is being sexually propositioned by the man on the right side of the painting. His reflection serves as a stand-in for the audience, who is also objectifying the woman through the sheer act of spectating upon her as art.
Claude Monet, Women in the Garden, 1866–67. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The cherry on top of the social-commentary sundae comes with Manet’s signature, which adorns a nearby beer bottle. In putting his own insignia next to that of the Bass Brewery, Manet simultaneously calls into question the commercial nature of the art industry.
Manet was far from the only artist to observe and document the growing trend of consumerism that swept Paris in the latter decades of the 19th century, though he may have been the most critical. In fact, many Impressionists surveyed the rise of consumer culture in luxurious brush strokes. “Representations of the modern woman as a chic Parisienne in a fashionable toilette played a prominent role in the birth of Impressionist painting,” writes scholar Ruth E. Iskin in her landmark book Modern Women and Parisian Culture in Impressionist Painting (2007). Iskin notes that Claude Monet painted several expansive portraits of fashionable Parisienne women in the late 1860s. In the works, Monet employed the conventions of fashion plates—widely disseminated commercial illustrations of women wearing the latest high-end fashions. Critic Mark Roskill writes of “the attention paid to the pattern, texture and sheer attractiveness of the materials,” along with “the stiff, artificial character of the poses and the psychological disconnections between the figures” in a painting like Women in the Garden (1866).
Such themes radiated into the 1870s and ’80s, and can be seen everywhere from the stylish evening gown depicted in Berthe Morisot’s 1875 canvas Before the Theatre (also known as Female Figure and Woman in Black) to the green parasol–toting Parisienne woman in Monet’s Woman with a Parasol—Madame Monet and Her Son(1875).By this point, Monet no longer seems as directly inspired by fashion plates, and instead puts forth a more explicitly Impressionist-style work, full of spontaneity. Though neither painting features the explicit logo we see in Manet’s work, each romanticizes the consumer goods on display. The late 19th-century Parisienne woman became the artistic muse—a decided shift from the long-regarded nude mythological figure.
Edgar Degas highlighted the burgeoning consumer culture further with his expansive 27-work collection of paintings depicting Paris millinery shops, the largest among them being The Millinery Shop (1879–86). Iskin notes that Degas took care to depict the hats in a way that incorporated “the new display strategies developed by department stores to attract customers.” By 1891, painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec took a commission from the Moulin Rouge to create 6-foot-tall posters advertising the new cabaret. This work, in major museum collections today, further blurred the line between art and branded content.
Since then, artists have commented on consumer culture in any number of ways. Marcel Duchamp began his series of Dada readymades in the 1910s, and the 1960s saw the rise of Pop art. We may associate product placement as being a more modern phenomenon: Andy Warhol’s beloved Campbell’s soup cans or Pepsi products infiltrating Back to the Future (1985). But Manet predicted our complicated relationship to consumerism a century earlier with the smallest of details: red triangles on beer bottles, surreptitiously placed.