Le Sidaner developed his distinctive lexicon during the 1890s, under the influence of Symbolism. The poignant fin-de-siècle mood of early Belgin Symbolists Maurice Maeterlinck, Emile Verhaeren, and Fernand Khnopff set the tone of his oeuvre. On a formal level, he found a suitably harmonious, all-over treatment for his compositions in Neo-Impressionism. The sense of understated mystery and gentle poetry, evident in the present work, was Le Sidaner's artistic inheritence from his Symbolist-inspired early years; while the highly-keyed palette, subtly worked contrasts and painterly application of pigment owed its debt to Impressionism. This dual aspect of his art was touched on by the critic, and his supporter, Camille Mauclair who wrote: "born out of Impressionism, [Le Sidaner] is as much the son of Verlaine than of the snowscenes of Monet" (C. Mauclair, Henri Le Sidaner, Paris, 1928, p. 12).
Writings on Le Sidaner tend to focus on the silence and subtle play of anticipation exemplified in his work, and his contemporary Paul Signac even went so far as to characterize Le Sidaner's entire career as a progression towards the elimination of human figures: "His oeuvre displays a taste for tender, soft and silent atmospheres. Gradually, he even went so far as to eliminate all human presence from his pictures, as if he feared that the slightest human form might disturb their muffled silence" (quoted in Y. Farinaux-Le Sidaner, op. cit., p. 31). In this context, Le café du port stands as a remarkable exception, showcasing Le Sidaner's masterful ability to harmonize disparate elements of a composition and bring a coherent sense of stillness and unity to the entire scene. Where he usually focused on table settings in deserted, domestic environments, such as private gardens, here the artist moves not only out of doors but to a social setting rife with unexpected encounter: the café. Moreover, the location of the café alongside the port provides the artist with a rich and varied template for painting, effectively condensing two Le Sidaner subjects--the table and the port--into one. As such, Le café du port not only generates an uncommonly deep perspectival horizon--in stark contrast to his other table scenes of the same period where the latticed wall at Gerberoy typically presents an ornate and dramatically foreshortened view--but features a special Le Sidaner rarity: two small figures at the water's edge, a mother and a child perhaps, definitively shaded and apparently just out of view. Among the few paintings where Le Sidaner did include human subjects, it is common for him to emphasize the desertion of the scene; figures often appear to be departing, as in the present work, and the inanimate objects are placed centrally to evoke a sense of suspended animation and expectation of a future human arrival. In Le café du port, that expectation is communicated by the set table, full of ripe fruit and served wine, which awaits its sitters to accept its bountiful offering.
This interpretation of the present work is radically altered when one considers that Le café du port is actually only one half of a spectacular work of the same title. In the catalogue raisonné of the work of Henri Le Sidaner, Yann Farinaux-Le Sidaner describes the year 1923 as "a time of utmost creative expression where the artist reaches a climax in his art." A prime example of that achievement, Farinaux-Le Sidaner notes, is "a very significant composition work, Le café du port (which has deteriorated)" (op. cit., p. 37). The "deterioration" referred to is further elucidated as the fact that this former composition, twice the width of the present work, was cut in half in 1965. The present work is the right half of the former composition, also titled Le café du port and illustrated in the catalogue raisonné in its original state (Farinaux-Le Sidaner, no. 510). The full scene is even more exceptional within Le Sidaner's oeuvre as the left half, missing here, includes a convivial scene of three people enjoying a meal at an adjacent table.
However, absent the left half, the present lot's nostalgic pull is intensified and it speaks more directly to the classic themes of Le Sidaner's oeuvre. By removing the trio of revelers from view, focus is drawn to the stark contrast between a full table and an empty one. The painting's relationship to Le Sidaner's other unattended table studies of the 1920s thereby becomes more explicit. For example, see Lot 335 in this catalogue, La table, harmonie rouge, a 1927 canvas that features the same single, plated orange that appears in the present work. While that 1927 painting is a virtual tone poem, characterized by a harmonious palette of warm reds and pinks, Le café du port exploits contrasting hues to emotional effect. The warm space of the café, dappled in deep mauves, gives way to the water's cool blue-greens. Through this formal tension, Le Sidaner captures the bittersweet ambiance of the port, the site of both expectant welcome and melancholy parting. Catherine Lévy-Lambert could easily be thinking of the present painting when she describes the artist's ability to capture "the indistinct hour when the day is about to die" (ibid., p. 31). It is the hour that critic Camille Mauclair has evocatively termed "l'heure Le Sidaner" (quoted in R. Le Sidaner, "Le Peintre Henri Le Sidaner tel que je l'ai connu," Henri Le Sidaner, exh. cat., Musée Marmottan, 1989, p. 11).