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Au Cafe Guerbois, Manet, 1869
The Cafes of Montmartre
A Bit of Background

The original Impressionist group came together in 1863, when their father figure, Edouard Manet, outraged the Paris art world with his Luncheon on the Grass - a painting of a naked woman picnicking with two fully-clothed men. The subject was an affront to bourgeois taste, and it was turned down by the selection panel of the Academie des Beaux Arts as unsuitable for showing at the annual exhibition of the Salon.


Photo: Edouard Manet
In previous years such a picture would never have reached the public eye. But that same year, the Emperor Napoleon III had given a new opportunity to rejected artists by opening a second exhibition, the Salon des Refuses, especially for them. Over 1,000 painters showed their works, and Manet's Luncheon caused a sensation. The academic critics savaged the painting as "a shameful, open sore," but Manet quickly became a hero for the young radicals. They flocked to his studio for advice and encouragement. And their sense of common purpose was cemented by meetings in the nearby Cafe Guerbois.

Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)
Manet, 1863
The Café Guerbois

The Cafe Guerbois, near Manet's studio became the gathering spot for Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Pissaro. Although Manet presided over the regular meeting and debates held at the cafe, he was not necessarily overly enthusiastic about his role as leader of the avant-garde.

The Cafe Guerbois was located in the heart of the Batignolles quarter. Many discussions about art took place there. Every Thursday, as the light faded in the evening, Manet's friends and admirers would gather to talk. His associates included Zola, Bazille, Duranty, Fantin-Latour, Degas, Monet, Renoir and Sisley. Sometimes the provincial artists, Cezanne and Pissaro, would show up if they were in the area. The impressionists sat there in the Café Guerbois, top-hatted and frock-coated, looking, as Cézanne once remarked, "like a bunch of lawyers!"

Manet did not like to be contradicted and one evening he fought a duel with Duranty. Duranty was wounded and later that evening they were friends again. By 1874 Manet's reputation as experimental artist and leader of the Impressionists was firmly established.

The Café Bouscarat

The Cafe Guerbois wasn't the only cafe frequented by the Impressionists. In the photo to the right is the original Cafe Bouscarat. In this photo, taken around 1920, the cafe had been converted into the Restaurant de la Boheme.

The Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes

Beginning in the mid 1870s, the group migrated from the Cafe Guerbois to a new place - the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes. Edgar Degas did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of this new cafe in his 1876 work l'Absinthe (shown in the image to the right).

The woman is the painting is the actress Ellen Andrée, and the man is Marcellin Desboutin, a painter and engraver. Desboutin, a popular figure in Montmartre, seems to have led the movement of the impressionists from the Cafe Guerbois to the Nouvelle-Athenes.


l'Absinthe, Degas, 1876
Photo: The Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes, circa 1920.
The Café aux Billiards en Bois

The Cafe aux Billiards en Bois (shown here converted to a restaurant at the turn of the century). This was yet another hangout of the impressionist movement.

Cafe Impressions

The cafes of Montmartre and Paris were not only frequented by the impressionists and used as meeting halls and centers of debate, they became the subject of many impressionist works. In the image to the right, you can see Vincent van Gogh's A Cafe Terrace at Night, 1888.

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