At the Café by Edgar Degas at The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge

In this episode, we’ll be taking a closer look at the 1876 oil on canvas painting At the Café by Edgar Degas at The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge. Welcome to Art, Culture & Books with me, Anthony King.

Edgar Degas was born in Paris on July 19th 1834 and died September 27th 1917. He is a distinguished French Impressionist artist, celebrated for his pastel drawings, oil paintings, and sculptures. This examination delves into one of his intriguing works, “At the Café,” painted between 1875 and 1877, currently housed at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Bequeathed by Frank Hindley Smith, 1939.

The museum’s own label tells us:

“Degas made several paintings, prints and drawings of women in cafés between 1875 and 1877. The two women in this painting have sometimes been described as prostitutes, but Degas seems to be less concerned with their identities than with evoking the intimate – and apparently troubled nature of their exchange. One looks lost in thought, apparently troubled; the other concerned, perhaps for her companion’s well-being. Degas kept this painting in his studio until his death in 1917. It was one of the first works by an Impressionist painter to enter the Museum’s collection, in 1939.”

Degas, born into a moderately wealthy family, played a pivotal role in the Impressionist movement despite rejecting the term. His extensive body of work, encompassing pastel drawings, oil paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings, showcases his mastery in depicting various subjects. More than half of his creations focus on dancers, highlighting his ability to capture movement and form with unparalleled precision.

“At the Café” exemplifies Degas’s deliberate exploration of late-nineteenth-century Parisian life. The painting offers a snapshot of daily existence during a transformative period in the 1870s, with over two million people residing in Paris, illuminated by the newly invented electric light, and traversing wide boulevards on horse-drawn buses. Degas, perhaps the greatest visual chronicler of modern, urban life, provides a humane perspective on the evolving society. The two women depicted in “At the Café,” often speculated to be adult companions, sit within an ambiguous setting. Degas intentionally leaves details open-ended, inviting viewers to interpret their roles. The absence of crockery adds to the mystery of their activity.

Remaining in Degas’s possession until his death, “At the Café” was acquired at his posthumous sale in 1918 by English dealer Percy Moore Turner.

The Fitzwilliam Museum, founded in 1816, stands as the art and antiquities museum of the University of Cambridge. Established under the will of Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, the museum houses one of the best collections of antiquities and modern art in western Europe. With over half a million objects and artworks, it boasts treasures by renowned artists like Monet, Picasso, Rubens, Van Gogh, and, of course, Degas. Incredible incidents, such as the one on January 25th 2006, where 42 year old Nick Flynn tripped and shattered three massive Qing Dynasty vases worse many hundreds of thousands of pounds! The good news is that restoration experts successfully reconstructed the damaged porcelain vases, showcasing the institution’s dedication to preservation and restoration. He was arrested but escaped charges.

“At the Café” invites viewers to eavesdrop on an intimate exchange between anonymous figures, emphasizing Degas’s ability to convey the complexities of human relationships. The painting’s loose brushstrokes and uncovered canvas suggest an unfinished quality, adding to its allure. However, Degas, known for his calculated visual effects, left nothing to chance, showcasing a meticulous approach to his craft. Degas’s deliberate departure from the spontaneity of his Impressionist counterparts aligns with his preference for studying the art of the past and working from sketches. His focus on urban subjects and almost surgical precision in exposing societal frailties set him apart, reflecting a more realistic and nuanced approach to his craft. In conclusion, “At the Café” stands as a captivating portal into the world of Edgar Degas, showcasing his keen observation of Parisian life. The interplay between anonymity and intimacy within the painting invites viewers to contemplate the mysteries left deliberately unresolved by the artist.

Anthony King (c)