Skip to main content

In a café

Gustave Caillebotte

(1848 - 1894) | D.946.1

Date : 1880 | Medium : Oil on canvas

Caillebotte presented this café scene, typical of modern life, at the fifth Impressionist Exhibition.

A life-sized male figure dominates the canvas. Caillebotte painted this subject several times and depicts him here looking a bit dishevelled in baggy clothes, hands in his pockets and with the vague look of a disillusioned regular on his face. He appears cut off from his surroundings, standing with his unfashionable bowler hat still thoughtlessly perched on the back of his head.

In the background, a large mirror reflects the scene in front of him: two hats hooked over a rack – one of them a top hat – and two men playing cards or dominoes, in an exclusively male realm.

The scene is set in a fancy establishment on the great Parisian boulevards, around noon, as can be seen from the sunny reflections of leaves and the red and white awning in the mirror. On the table next to our man there are four ceramic saucers and a glass of absinthe, which had also been the subject of a preparatory drawing made by the artist (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery).

On 17 July 1880 a law was passed, lifting restrictions on drinking establishments – at a time when the ravages of absinthe were at their height – and some people saw In a Café as manifesto against this liberalisation.

The painting is also an Impressionist manifesto: its subject, its vibrancy, the quality of the daylight and the interplay of material, light and reflections, all bring to mind Caillebotte's words: 'Since we stick closely to nature, we do not differentiate the figures we paint from their background, be they in an apartment or at the bottom of the street...'