Ilya Repin's A Parisian Café is arguably the last great work by this preeminent Russian master in private hands. Whilst being atypical of his celebrated Russian subjects, it is a key canvas in the development of Repin's oeuvre and marks a critical turning point in the then young artist's burgeoning career. Painted during Repin's stint as an academic pensioner in Paris 1873-76, and exhibited at the Paris Salon (in contravention of Imperial Academy rules) this was a time of creative consternation for the young Repin, faced with the artistic wonders of Europe and the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the French capital. He vacillated throughout his stay in a creative schizophrenia, working on more traditional Russian subjects such as Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom whilst simultaneously confounding his Russian peers by shifting his attention from national themes towards those of an experimental nature influenced by modern French art.
The finished work, exhibited in April-May 1875 under the title Un café du boulevard, caused a heated exchange with his prime mentors, Vladimir Stasov and Ivan Kramskoy, with Repin defending his right to artistic independence whilst they sought to confine him to distinctly Russian subject matter and bring him back to the designer image they had fashioned for him as the enfant terrible of critical realism following the success and notoriety of his earlier Barge-haulers on the Volga (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, 1870-73). Despite their consternation, with hindsight we can now appreciate A Parisian Café as one of Repin's most modern and experimental works that approaches the cosmopolitan contemporaneity of Parisian life with a bold progressiveness.
Records passed down through the Swede Martin Mansson (who acquired the painting in 1916) identify the sitters as a fascinating cross-section of high and low cultural life in the French capital. The figure seated left, reading his newspaper at the table, is the French writer and literary critic Ferdinand Brunetière whilst the centrally-seated male figure, in black with moustache, is the famous Salon painter Jean-Léon Gérôme - although an alternative identification has him as the writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-93). Catulle Mendés, the French poet, novelist and dramatist was the model for the top-hatted man at the next table, whilst the tall man exiting as he removes a glove is identified as an Englishman named Mackenzie Graves. To the extreme right the seated figure is that of Bellot, a professional model used also by Manet for Le bon Bock. Various other minor figures are named although nothing is known of them, but the painting is held by the imposing female figure in black modelled from the celebrated actress Anna Judic.
Repin met with a broad section of the Parisian intelligentsia (Turgenev introduced him to Zola) and he seems to have thrived in an atmosphere of cultural experimentation. In terms of subject alone A Parisian Café is one of the most interesting and uncharacteristic of Repin's works, depicting the liberality and license of Paris as the unchaperoned and worldly figure of Anna Judic draws the attention and excitement of those about her. Of the two men exiting from the cafe one yawns indifferently, presumably a native of the city, whilst his English companion stares through his pince-nez in disbelief at the openness of such a shameless phenomenon.
In letters of the period Repin clearly enjoyed working away from the constraints of judgmental and nationalistic art towards a new creative liberty, but when the painter Arkhip Kuindzhi brought word of the canvas to Russia, describing it as a mistake and 'a scandal', Kramskoy (without seeing the painting) took Repin to task saying:
'I thought you had far firmer convictions regarding the chief conditions of art, its means, and especially its national strain. [...] I do not say this is not a subject, what else would it be! Only it is not for us. We should have heard chansons from the cradle. In a word we should need to be French.'
Repin replied by invoking 'Manet and the empressionalists' [sic] as evidence of the need for experimentation and originality and stoutly defended his creative autonomy. Further exchanges ensued along similar lines, in the light of which A Parisian Café has traditionally been considered a routine Salon piece which shocked Repin's contemporaries by its modern, foreign and urban subject matter - nationalism versus cosmopolitanism, progressive and meaningful content versus foreign superficiality. But a more detailed scrutiny reveals, even in terms of mainstream Western painting, Repin's progressive and unorthodox approach to an innovative subject; a daring, indeed scandalous work, if not in the manner Kramskoy and Stasov perceived.
Following not so long after the aberrant selection of Manet's Olympia (Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 1863) for the 1865 Salon, Repin's blatant depiction of an unaccompanied denizen of the Parisian demi-monde; bold, confident, unapologetic and, like Olympia, making brazen eye-contact with the viewer, is an exceptional piece of modern audacity from such a young painter. Olympia was in turn a realist version of the recumbent Venus, common to many Italian masters, an analogy that sees Repin's semi-reclining female figure as a fitting Venus for modern, urban Paris.
From the perspective of the period A Parisian Café is far from conventional and warrants consideration as a bold and unorthodox canvas even by French, rather than merely Russian criteria. The painter Vasily Polenov, whilst unsympathetic to the theme, defended Repin on the grounds that 'daily life, frock-coats and vests' were worth painting as an exercise in realism; a comment curiously reminiscent of the modernist critic Champfleury, who championed the 'serious representation of present-day personalities, the derbies, the black dress-coats, the polished shoes...', or indeed Baudelaire's invocation to painter's to show society 'how great and poetic we are in our cravats and our patent-leather boots.'
A Parisian Café, of course, is not the work of a nascent Impressionist. It remains tied to academic processes, carefully arranged to assist a reading of events, whereas Manet was by now making daring use of close-cropped, apparently random compositions, presenting a fragment of a scene. Repin rarely abandoned the narrative element of his art and whilst he made many superb studies for A Parisian Café he distinguished between the sketch as an aide-memoire, and a finished work, requiring planning, arrangement and elucidation of content (though it was the apparent lack of 'significant' content in A Parisian Café that also disturbed his Russian contemporaries). When the canvas was acquired by Martin Mansson, the female protagonist, following repainting by Repin, was a more forlorn and despondent figure; a social victim rather than an unabashed and self-confident 'cocotte'. But in 1936 the canvas was x-rayed and the current face exposed by restoration work in Stockholm. (Mansson with great forethought commissioned an oil copy of the face before it was removed). Why Repin altered this figure remains a mystery; he likely thought to increase the painting's commercial appeal by changing its keynote from the risqu to the socially astute. The original, as we now see it, is however a much finer piece of painting, restoring this unconventional masterpiece to its original state.
Repin's considerations of modern artistic developments, his acknowledgement of Manet and the Impressionists as important catalysts in an otherwise lacklustre and derivative art scene, his forays into the immediacy of plein-air practice, are deeply imbedded in the unorthodoxy of A Parisian Café, which in form and content appears a remarkable and astounding anomaly in his critical-realist career. Yet it is also profoundly emblematic of a lifelong proclivity for experimentation and creative independence, a bold, unique and singular painting without precedent in Repin's long and distinguished career.
Yuri Annenkov, an abstract, avant-garde Soviet artist at odds with realist art forms, encapsulated the ethos from which A Parisian Café was nurtured when he paid generous tribute to Repin's painterly and experimental outlook:
Repin, like all true artists who ever lived, rejected the notion of painting in accordance with a preconceived scheme that dominated the creative approach to the act of painting. . . It is not so much realistic representation of the subject, but form as such, the independent originality of Repin's powerful brushstrokes, that gives force to his works . . . Repin always was and remains a progressive painter.'
Professor David Jackson,
School of Fine Art, History of Art, and Cultural Studies,
University of Leeds
Repin arrived in Paris at a key moment in the development of modern art: during his time in the French capital, which was to provide his base between 1873 and 1876, he bore witness to the first exhibition organised by the Societé Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc, or as they are now more commonly known, the Impressionists. Writing to his great friend and mentor Ivan Kramskoy two weeks prior to this exhibition's opening, Repin expressed both his approval and a keen interest in his host country's artistic endeavours:
'French art now stands in its true bloom having cast off all imitative and academic elements, as well as all kinds of superficial shackles, and now it is genuine. [...] Genuine French art finally reigns, attracting the whole world by its brilliance, taste, lightness, gracefulness, and in art the French are true to their national peculiarities as in all else.'
Created during his stint at the turbulent centre of artistic innovation that was Paris in the late 19th century, Repin's epic painting A Parisian Café stands as a masterpiece of the period, revealing both the influence of Western art on the Russian artist, and his own status as a trailblazing pioneer during that time in both Russian and Western terms.
Repin had already seen much that he admired and much that he scorned during his time in Paris. He had voiced his disapproval of the Barbizon school and many of the more academic painters, but had shown his enthusiasm for Gustave Courbet, to whose large group compositions, for instance Un enterrement à Ornans of 1849-50, A Parisian Café shows some kinship. Likewise, he had shown great interest in the pictures of Carolus-Duran, Henri Regnault and Mariano Fortuny y Marsal. However, some of his most spirited endorsements of artists at the time came as a result of what is now known as the First Impressionist Exhibition: writing to his patron Pavel Tretyakov, he declared:
'The remarkable thing here is the appearance of the realists - so far they are refused and cannot get into the Salon but only in other small exhibits. But they have a positive future, and at present the best things can be directly attributed to this realist school.'
Certainly, looking at both the subject and the richly painterly treatment of A Parisian Café, parallels can be drawn between Repin and the Impressionists, many of whom were still grouped under the banner of Realism, and to their friend and pioneer Edouard Manet in particular; indeed, Repin would at one point write that he had specifically painted a portrait 'à la Manet'. A Parisian Café in fact prefigures many of the group compositions showing people socialising at bars and cafs that would become such icons of Impressionism, for instance Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Le Moulin de la Galette of 1876 - the year after A Parisian Café had been shown at the Salon - as well as his Déjeuner des canotiers of 1881 or Manet's own Un bar aux Folies Bergères from the following year. While the meticulous quality of the depictions of the portrait-like heads in the foreground appears a far cry from Impressionism, they nonetheless recall Edgar Degas' L'orchestre de l'Opéra of circa 1870 while the lively, lavishly loose brushstrokes and light effects in the background echo Manet in particular.
While Repin did not completely abandon narrative drive in favour of subjective verisimilitude in A Parisian Café, which retains an incredible attention to detail in the depiction of the faces in the first couple of rows of characters, he was nonetheless revealing a new trend in Realism - the umbrella term with which some of the Impressionists were still associated - in the depiction of the world around him. He was moving away from the staid classicism of the Academy or even the Salon, as encapsulated in the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose presence in A Parisian Café would appear to be no coincidence. In this sense, the parallel with the closely-observed physiognomies of Courbet's large group paintings is pertinent: Repin was taking the crucial realism of his Burlaki, the 1873 painting of Volga barge haulers, and pushing it to a new degree, especially in the painstakingly-executed foreground. However, here there is a new form of social subject, an image of urban and urbane daily life in Paris showing the world at leisure. And these are for the large part specific characters, including artists, writers and even a model used by Manet, Bellot. Meanwhile, the poster for the Folies Bergères evokes the wealth of lively entertainment available in Paris at the time. This is a new form of genre painting which shows the vast strides that Repin had taken away from the staid tenets of the Academy towards something incredibly current, a slice of life reminiscent of the literature of Emile Zola, the author he had so admired and to whom Turgenev had introduced him. Already, Repin had been placing himself, as a Russian observer of society in the French capital, in the role of the 'painter of modern life' invented and celebrated by the poet Charles Baudelaire, which was to become a crucial template for the more urban side of Impressionism:
'The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.'
Baudelaire's essay extolling the merits of the fláneur was originally published in 1863. That was a key moment for art both in Russia and in Paris: it was the year that Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe was rejected from the official Salon in the French capital, resulting in the innovative presence of the Salon des Refusés which was to become such a rallying point for a new generation of French artists and whose direct descendent would be the first Impressionist show. It was also the year that Repin's former teacher and mentor Ivan Kramskoy encouraged a group of artists to spurn some of the structure of the Academy in St Petersburg, resulting in the Artel group whose weekly meetings were such an important touchstone for Repin himself, encouraging him to think in a freer manner and engage in discussions about the purpose and direction of art.
That same hunger for, and fascination with, discussion came to the fore during Repin's time in Paris. There, he was fascinated by the way in which the French café served as a forum for open political conversation as well as social interaction in a way that had no equivalent in his native Russia. Both of these aspects are clearly on display in A Parisian Café, where flirtations and tensions weave their narrative across the expanse of the canvas while various clusters of men carry out animated discussions, with one figure studiously keeping abreast with current affairs by reading his newspaper on the left. Repin was criticised by several of his Russian contemporaries at the time that he painted and exhibited A Parisian Café due to its perceived lack of Russian content and its clear fascination with the minutiae of everyday, cosmopolitan life in France. Yet this picture stands in a sense as a monument to a form of intellectual existence that had no equivalent in Russia, viewed with wonder by this foreign visitor and recorded in part for the benefit of his home audience. In this context, one can understand Repin's spirited defence of his painting against his friends who received reports of this picture with such trepidation, especially Kramskoy, his teacher and great reformist mentor, and the critic Vladimir Stasov. Repin, the man of the 1860s, the reformer, had here created an image that was ahead of its time for both the Russian audience to which he would soon return and the Western audience which hung it astronomically high at the Salon where it was shown, and yet which would soon come of age in terms of both its style and, more importantly, its content.