A keen observer of life, Jean-Louis Forain slipped easily into the role of the typical flâneur in nineteenth century Paris, absorbing the city’s sights and sounds, witnessing its dynamic play of life first-hand, and experiencing the very scenes of la vie Parisienne which would provide the primary inspiration for his compositions. Fascinated by the clash between the worlds of high and low society during the Belle Époque, he created a wealth of witty cartoons and highly insightful paintings which captured the subtle nuances of class and etiquette that coloured even the shortest of interactions between the city’s inhabitants. It was these fleeting exchanges – the spontaneous, unexpected moments central to the Parisian experience – that Forain found most intriguing, and which he sought to translate into his works.
Like his close friend Edgar Degas, Forain drew extensively from the world of entertainment, finding intriguing subjects amongst the spectators at the operas, concerts, and lively sporting events which took place around the city. Indeed, Charles Ephrussi, in his review of the 1881 Impressionist exhibition, praised Forain’s approach to these familiar subjects: ‘Forain, who has closely studied Degas’s style,… is able to give the actors in his little pieces a pointed wit that is utterly Parisian’ (quoted in T. Reff and F. Valdès-Forain, Jean-Louis Forain: The Impressionist Years, exh. cat., Memphis, 1995, p. 15). Key amongst his favourite subjects was the hustle and bustle of the café, which had become a recurring subject for Impressionist artists, from Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Degas, to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat, during the second half of the nineteenth century. As Edward King noted in 1867, the café lay at the heart of Parisian society during this period: ‘The huge Paris world centres twice, thrice daily; it is at the café; it gossips at the café; it intrigues at the café; it plots, it dreams, it suffers, it hopes, at the café’ (quoted in R. L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure & Parisian Society, New Haven and London, 1988, p. 65). Catering to a wide clientele, they served coffee, beer and food at all times of the day and night, often complemented with live entertainment in the evenings, drawing crowds from across the social spectrum.
Unlike Manet or Degas, who typically focused on the young women who staffed these spaces or performed on their stages, it is the liveliness of the everchanging crowd, the intriguing mix of different characters sitting side by side, that occupies Forain’s attention in works such as Au café. Executed in fluid washes of pigment, overlaid with sharp, rapid strokes of ink, Forain conjures an impression of the smoky, sultry atmosphere of the café, the characters blending seamlessly into the soft shadows and diffused light cast by the gas lamps. While the snapshot effect of the framing owes a debt to Degas, Forain focuses less on depicting unusual viewpoints and unexpected poses, and instead draws attention to the fleeting glances and looks between patrons in the café. In the same way that Renoir (La Loge, 1874) or Mary Cassatt (Á l'Opéra, 1879) depicted the audience looking at each other through opera glasses at the theatre, Forain emphasises the social exchange that takes place in these cafés, the unexpected interactions and chance encounters that could occur by a simple crossing of paths, or by catching someone’s eye in the crowd.
Although half a dozen customers are shown in various postures and poses – head on, in profile, from behind – it is the trio of elegantly attired women in the crowd who draw the eye. Seated at different tables and looking in different directions, they nevertheless are interconnected by their proximity to one another. Capturing the varying textures and details of their clothing with the briefest strokes of his pen – from the buttons of the woman’s blue dress in the foreground, to the sheer veil and brightly coloured flower of the elegant hat of the lady seated behind her, and the luxurious fur collar of the coat worn by the woman to the left – Forain illustrates the importance of fashion and appearance in the lives of these women, while also perhaps casting a critical eye on the changing role of clothing as a means of identifying social status during this period. Indeed, there is a certain ambiguity regarding his subjects’ identities. Though the three women are all well dressed, their social status remains elusive. They may be well-to-do middle-class figure out for the evening, a tourist eagerly partaking in the city’s famed nightlife, an aspiring actress or ballet dancer courting an admirer, or even an enterprising sales assistant from one of the glamorous department stores that populated the city, stopping in for a drink on their way home. As such, they each remain decidedly enigmatic, sharing a space and an experience, and yet entirely independent from one another, completely lost in their own worlds.