It’s probably the height of presumption to single out one painting for praise from 500 years of portraiture at London’s National Portrait Gallery, but here goes.

Eyes wide shut

In an exhibit that opened last week at London’s $52 million revamped museum, my compliments go to the 1882 portrait of the barmaid in Édouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.”

What’s special about this portrait is that you don’t just see how the barmaid looks, but also how she feels. Without that sign of inwardness in a painting, all you’d get is a likeness and a layout of colors and shapes.

And there’s no point to that unless, of course, you’re James Abbott McNeill Whistler who used his mother as a compositional device.

Whistler even made sure you got the point by titling the likeness of his mother “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” He wanted you to know that he was composing, not portraying.

When it comes to portraying a state of mind, I’ve long been haunted by the disaffection in Francesco Clemente’s “Self-Portrait.” His hooded eyes stare vacantly from a face that seems never to have known a smile.

Clemente’s “Self-Portrait” isn’t in the London show. I cite it because Manet’s barmaid has the same look, though with an important difference.

Manet’s painting is not a self-portrait. The introspection you see in the barmaid came from his attention to a female’s state of mind – not a common occurrence in 1882.

And even though Manet included the stock view of a woman’s cleavage – he added another dimension – a woman’s state of mind.

You see what the barmaid is feeling in her weary eyes and the look of boredom, likely from catering to the needs of nightclub revelers. In plain view, she remains unnoticed. The crowd makes her feel isolated, and Manet noticed it.

He noticed the same thing in his painting “Luncheon on the Grass,” which describes a nude woman picnicking with clothed men. You get the bared flesh, but you get something else, too.

While Manet paints the proverbial female, in some state of undress, he shows her staring at you staring at her, as if asking, “What are you looking at?”

What you see is not all you get

Again, like his painting of the barmaid, Manet didn’t pose the woman in “Luncheon on the Grass” passively only for your viewing pleasure.

He painted her in active conversation with men. And by doing that, he defied all of art history.

Manet knew how painters treated women in the past and sought to change that. Not that he always did this. I’m thinking of his portrait of Mrs. Manet, his wife Suzanne Leenhoff.

In “Mme Manet at the Piano,” he shows Suzanne sitting stiffly at the keyboard staring fixedly at the sheet music before her. There’s no way you can see what she’s thinking.

To emphasize the extraordinary portrait of the barmaid, consider another painting in the London show made three centuries earlier, this time by a female painter, titled Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola” by Sofonisba Anguissola.

Even in a female artist's hands, the sitter – the painter herself – looks out mindlessly. This was in 1559, Sign of the times.