The Cafe GuerboisThe address was number 11, Grande rue des Batignolles. Today it is a group of small shops, but in 1866, it was the Cafe Guerbois (pronounced gur-BWA). It was a noisy little place filled with marble-topped tables, cheap, metal chairs, smoke, a few paintings on the dark, panelled walls, a bar across one end of the room, and young Mademoiselles taking orders and delivering drinks. During the day it was just another Paris street cafe serving light lunches, lemonade, coffee, tea, wines and presumably more potent beverages as the evening approached. It was then that the place came alive. It was the favourite hangout for the "arty" crowd, especially painters, and especially those painters who admired the work of Edouard Manet.
Manet was the centre of a group of friends, and younger, admiring fellow artists. Among the almost daily guests at the Cafe Guerbois were Paul CÚzanne, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Renoir, and Frederick Bazille. The list reads like a who's who of rogue painters at the time. Writers such as Emile Zola and the photographer/ caricaturist, Felix Nadar, came often as well as lesser-knowns, Astruc, Duranty, Fantin-Latour, Constantin Guys, Duret, Guillemet, and Bracquemond. Thursday nights were set aside especially for these artists to meet, eat, talk, drink, argue, and expound. They did not always agree...actually, perhaps they seldom agreed fully with all that was said, and some talked more than others did. But all put away new ideas, enriching their minds, drinking their limit, and depleting their purses. Some, like CÚzanne, sat in a dark corner and did more listening than talking, but when he did, everyone else listened intently.
Few in the group could match Manet's intellectual prowess. Except for Pissarro, he was the oldest, by far the best educated, and the wealthiest. He dressed with great care, spoke with modesty and kindness, but by nature was ambitions and impetuous. He was often witty, at times he could be ironic, occasionally even cruel. His chief conversational rival was Edgar Degas. Though their tastes in art were similar and they seemed to respect one another, they more often than not disagreed. When they were not quarrelling, they were friendly, though both were known to bear one another grudges. Of the others, only Frederick Bazille had the education and taste for verbal sparring to tangle with minds as sharp as Degas' or Manet's. Shy, but firm in his beliefs, he stood up for them with undeniable logic and passion. Together, these three made up the main event and the only source of entertainment at the Cafe Guerbois. Here could be found the rich philosophical interaction, which teased the nascent minds that would revolutionise art during their lifetimes.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 April 1998