What more lively portrayal of nightlife might one find than that of a Parisian sidewalk café occupied by its world-weary patrons? A common subject for the French Impressionists, such images have always held a certain charm for me. If you’re like me then you probably imagine Parisian nightlife in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as a hive of intellectual and decadent activity, but it’s refreshing to know that even in such an exciting environment, not everyone found enjoyment or maintained their enthusiasm, and I reckon this social scene experienced its share of casualties, folks who stuck around long after their expiration, hoping to recapture the good times of years past, or perhaps they were just bored.
It’s that ominous feeling which American Impressionist Richard E. Miller so vividly conveyed his painting Cafe de Nuit. Just look at this! Looking particularly distraught, the seated woman in black is a dead ringer for Anne Gwish if I’ve ever seen one. Whether a stranded wallflower or a fatigued socialite, she nonetheless appears comfortable in her surroundings, and by the look of that glass it doesn’t seem like she’s leaving anytime soon.
Oh, I’m sure Cafe de Nuit contains cultural nuances which are oblivious to me. From what I’ve already read, based on their social class it would be viewed as unfavorable for our two prominent women to be seen unattended in such a setting. One might even find a parable in a juxtaposition of these two women, as the seated Madame might operate as a cautionary tale to the seemingly-cheery lady in white, but that’s aside from what resonates with me about this piece.
There’s an intrigue to people watching not limited to establishments which cater to nightlife, as regulars and loyal customers of businesses everywhere are disposed to claim their territories and defend them with ire, but Miller’s isn’t satisfied with such a simple observation, instead suggesting an emptiness which comments on the scene, even if that emptiness isn’t fully realized by its subjects. In his composition, the open space left by the empty chair operates as the vacuum, pulling the eye inward no matter where else in the café we try to explore. For me, this space communicates a void, as if something essential has since departed and left these poor souls stranded, but even so they continue to haunt this lonely spot as if it were a temporal limbo.
On a lighter note, I love the use of color and the attention to placement throughout this piece. Unlike other Impressionist café views I’m accustomed to seeing, all the variables in Miller’s painting seem so exacting and rigid, perhaps lacking the natural energy one might find in a Edgar Degas or a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but that’s fine by me. I also enjoy the woman departing via carriage in the background as well as the small stand which appears to be selling flowers.