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At the cafe with Béraud

An attentive painter of Parisian life during the Belle Époque, Jean Béraud (1849-1935) produced some twenty paintings in 1909 which describe the interior of a bar by playing on the reflections of the characters in a mirror, not without provoking many questions. Let's look (not too much anyway...) at one of them: "Au café", painted thirty three years after "L'absinthe" by Edgar Degas.

Willard Leroy Metcalf. On the Suffolk Coast. 1885. collection particulière.
Jean Béraud. Au café. 1909. Paris Musée Carnavalet

A woman and a man are seated at a table in a bistro, their backs against a paneled wall, and inset with a mirror that shows a frosted glass divider, suggesting they are in a cubicle. In the background, we discover the room, and the sign "Bar", whose letters are curiously in the right direction, while logically, they should be upside down. A large chandelier of which we only see the hanger traces a two-thirds vertical. The spectator, or the painter, it depends, is placed right in front of the composition. The empty chair suggests that he has just got up to capture the situation and conveniently hides the legs of the male figure. But in this case, his reflection should appear in the mirror.

On the table, the man has in front of him his glass containing a measure of absinthe and on which he has placed the ritual piece of sugar on a perforated spoon. He has already poured ice water over it from a carafe which he puts down with his left hand. The sugar will now gradually dissolve and drip onto the green liquid, which will "squint" and turn opalescent. Having lit a cigarette, the man seems to be explaining something to the woman who is barely listening to him, locked in thought. She has her right hand resting on a purse. In front of her, a kind of baba, and a small liqueur glass placed on an ashtray.

Jean Béraud probably depicts an exchange between a pimp and his "protected" in this painting executed for the young Bernheim gallery.

Willard-Leroy Metcalf. Ballerines. 1885. collection privée
Edgar Degas. L'absinthe. 1876. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Edgar Degas' painting features Ellen André, actress and model, alongside Marcellin Desboutin, painter-engraver. The painting harming their reputation, Degas will have to state publicly that they are not alcoholics!

The off-center framing, leaving gaps and severing the pipe and the man's hand, is inspired by Japanese prints. Edgar Degas uses it here to produce some confusion related to alcohol consumption.


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