Irving Ramsey Wiles was one of the pre-eminent portrait painters in late nineteenth-century America. He studied with such notable American artists as Thomas Dewing, Carroll Beckwith and in particular, William Merritt Chase, with whom he formed a life-long friendship, at the Art Students League in 1879. He proceeded to Paris in 1882 and spent his first months there at the Academie Julian under the direction of Gustave Boulanger and Jules Joseph Lefebre, before studying with Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran. The artist focused primarily on the depiction of women, as seen in the present work, The Corner Table, painted two years after his return from France.
In the present work, Wiles shows a woman in a cafe seated at a table with a large mirror behind her. The table is set for two and the chair opposite her is turned, the woman appears to await the return of her companion. This work is an early example of Wiles's work and shows him developing his style and approach to his subjects. A lovely and intimate scene, Wiles's influence while studying in France is evident, as the work is reminiscent of the cafe scenes by French artists at the time, in particular, Edouard Manet. Manet's Le Bar aux Folies-Bergere (1881-1882, Courtauld Institute of Arts, London) is certainly similar in composition to the present work. In Manet's painting, the woman standing behind the bar looks directly at the viewer expectantly, as the busy cafe can be seen in the reflection behind her. Just as in Le Bar aux Folies-Bergere, the woman in The Corner Table sits in anticipation as a waiter attending to the other guests can be seen in the mirror.
Wiles develops his use of light and shadow in the work, an aspect of his painting in which the artist was most fascinated. Wiles stated, "Color is whatever light makes it, and light changes and transforms everything - color, line, everything. Light is beauty." (as quoted in William D. Paul, Jr., The Art of Irving Ramsey Wiles, 1971) Light reflects off the glasses and decanters on the table and through her large, lacy bow while the dark corner is shaded. Wiles presents the atmosphere of an evening at a small cafe. His attention to detail is evident in the delicate stems of the glasses and the porcelain on the table top. The Corner Table is an engaging painting by an artist who later concentrated his efforts on making portraits of women in subtle interior light. Wiles expanded this oeuvre to present a painting not of a graceful woman in a formal portrait, but a moment in a cafe. The enigmatic composition leaves the viewer questioning if the woman is looking to get the attention of the waiter, looking towards her companion or more intimately, looking directly at us. The Corner Table typifies the complexities that are inherent in Wiles's most successful works.