Although Fergusson had visited France as early as 1895 it was from the turn of the twentieth century that he began to spend significant periods of time there, often in the company of Peploe with whom he embarked on sketching holidays along the north coast at Deauville, Le Touquet, Dieppe and Etaples. In Paris later in the decade he immersed himself into the café world of absinthe-fuelled gaiety. He adored the French capital and its people, its modern approach to art and the freedom of its Bohemian underworld; 'Well, I was in Paris, without money or rich relations... but repeatedly encouraged by what someone has called "le bon air de Paris, qui semble contenir les effleuves amoureuses et les emanations intellectuelles". Life was as it should be and I was very happy. The Dôme, so to speak, round the corner; l'Avenue quite near; the concert Ronge not far away - I was very much interested in music; the Luxenbourg Gardens to sketch in; Colarossi's class if I wanted to work from the model. In short, everything a young painter could want...' (Jean Geddes and Margaret Morris, Cafe Drawings in Edwardian Paris from the Sketch-Books of J D Fergusson, 1974, p. 8). He finally settled in Paris in 1907 at Boulevard Edgar Quinet with a retainer to produce illustrations of café life for an American magazine.
Fergusson was a habitué of Montparnasse in particular and often spent his afternoons and evenings at the Pre-Catalan Restaurant, the Closerie des Lilas with the Café d'Harcourt becoming a particularly favourite haunt. His circle of friends included the artists Bertha Case, Jo Davidson, Anne Estelle Rice, the poet Roffy and the mathmetician and aviator La Torrie and the writers John Middleton Murray and Katherine Mansfield. He mixed freely with some of the greatest French avante-garde artists of the day such as Matisse, Derain, Delauney and Dunoyer de Segonzac. Their common interest in exploring and developing the properties of colour, volume and line to depict how they felt about what they saw, was a driving force. Café society was central to their camaraderie; it was the meeting place of the Parisian intelligentsia. Years later Fergusson would describe the energy and attraction of the hours spent in the cafés of Paris; 'Further down the Boul Miche was the wonderful Café d'Harcourt, where they had a lively Hungarian band that used a metal tray with knives and forks and spoons on it, to reinforce, very successfully, their music. But for me the greatest attraction was the girl frequenters. They were chiefly girls employed by dressmakers and milliners and wore the things they were working at, mostly too extreme from a practical point of view, but with that touch of daring that made them very helpful - they were a great help to me... We always came down to the d'Harcourt after dinner to make sketches of these charming girls, who were quite pleased to be drawn and didn't become self-conscious or take frozen poses.' (Memoires of Peploe, in Scottish Art Review, 1962, vol. 8, no.3) We can assume that the women in the present view, with their large hats overflowing with blooms of claret-coloured flowers, are two of the obliging milliners.
Fergusson's pictures of cafe society satirise the over-fed or over-dressed denizens of the various cafes and restaurants he frequented and depict similar subject to those which fascinated Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen around the same time. From the many energetic pencil and chalk drawings drawn in-situ at the cafés in Fergusson's sketchbooks, he made larger watercolour drawings and a very small number of oil paintings like the present picture, The Café in the Park of c.1906 (private collection) and La Terrasse, Café d'Harcourt c.1908 (private collection) and the contemporary Créme de Menthe, Café Harcourt (Sotheby's, Gleneagles, 30 August 2000, lot 1285).
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