Paris Bistro: Iconic Place, Cool Lifestyle, Home for Art

The Life Within the Bistro

The Local Artists and “Their” Cafés

As previously said, cafés were meeting places for intellectuals in the 19th-century city. In the bistros, news, theories, and ideas were shared just like drinks and cigars. That’s why life within cafés was a fascinating subject itself, in particular for local artists.

Henri Gervex (18521929) was a painter in the second half of the 19th century who divided his life between army and art, traveling a lot in Europe. He never forgot his native city and his education, as seen in his Café Scene. Here, the artist painted a group of intellectuals, probably his friends, in the nearby café with a self-portrait in the middle and a lady in a pink dress showing her back.

Some excellent world-renowned Impressionists also challenged themselves with the theme of the café.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (18411919) was one of the first. One of his famous paintings takes place in a café, with a lovely woman sitting beside a man and next to another woman. The colors blend and the brushstrokes are heavy, making this piece a totally Impressionist one. The centrality of the women may also suggest Renoir’s ability to appreciate and exalt feminine beauty.

Bistro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, In the Café, 1877, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, In the Café, 1877, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Edouard Manet (1832–1883) loved the background of the bistro too, painting plenty of café scenes. He liked the atmosphere and often sat there for relaxation after work, meeting friends and talking with people.

The Café Concert is very suggestive. In the background, the mirror’s reflection shows an elegantly dressed singer, while the center of the scene is filled with an elderly man, as well as a lady in the middle. They each have their mug and are relaxing. This everyday scene, perfectly balanced, displays Manet’s skills, especially in the representation of details such as hands and drinks.

Edouard Manet, At the Cafe, or Café Concert, 1878, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MA, USA. Manet.

The European Artists: A Bistro As Seen by a Spaniard

José Jiménez Aranda (1837–1903) was a Spanish-born artist. Like his contemporaries in Europe, he was educated in his home country but then traveled a lot to develop his art. He preferred paintings, although also learned to create stained-glass windows. In 1881, he moved to Paris where he stayed for nine years, working on Impressionist-like pieces.

One of these is El café, a crowded scene representing life within a bistro. The painting is Impressionist in subject and composition. However the accuracy of the figures, their details, and the lack of heavy brushstrokes underline the personal style of the artist who was also influenced by a period in Italy and his cultural background. In a sense, with its suffused light, complicated arabesques on the walls, and rich clothes of the people, the painting may recall a 16th- or 17th-century Spanish atmosphere, with officials and sailors ready to conquer the world.

The Café of a Dutch

Isaac Israëls (1865–1934) was an Impressionist painter of Dutch origin. The son of another painter, he sold his first work at 16 years old and decided to become an artist. After some years in Amsterdam, like many others he moved to Paris where he joined the Impressionist group. He felt on the same wavelength with them and thus became the only Dutch Impressionist in France. The artist enjoyed his life in the capital city with friends, buyers, and arts. He preferred paintings of women at work but he also tried subjects such as dancehalls and cafés.

The Moulin de la Galette, on the top of the hill in Montmartre was probably his favorite place. He represented it in different versions, one of which shows a couple, a man and a lady, who are talking while elegantly drinking and smoking. The background is filled with dancing couples. The two main characters stare at and lean towards one another, creating a delicate atmosphere of complicity.

Bistro, Isaac Israels, Moulin de la Galette, ca 1905, private collection.

Isaac Israëls, Moulin de la Galette, ca 1905, private collection. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Parisian Bistro Through the Eyes of a Russian

Ilya Repin (18441930) was a Ukrainian-Russian painter, contemporary, and friend of Korovin. He received authorization to travel abroad to further develop his artistic skills. Coming to Paris, he was fascinated by the society of the city. In contrast to Korovin, Repin preferred to focus on people, interiors of Parisian bistros, and real life rather than on picturesque vistas of the city.

He painted A Parisian Café, collecting many figures whose center is a solitary lady in black. Although nowadays she appears like an ordinary woman, at that time she suggested provocation and ambiguity. The details on her outfit, the umbrella, her attitude and gaze all imply these, and that is why other characters stare at her. The presence of sensuality was the main theme at that time, as already seen in other paintings. The bistros were home to artists, their ideas, and theories but also to relaxation and of course pleasure.

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