Modernity in Edgar Degas : Women on the Terrace of a Cafe, Evening

by KathleenDuffy

This work by Edgar Degas illustrates an aspect of the emerging dynamics of 'modern life'.

Edgar Degas is perhaps more recognised for his inspirational renderings of the hard lives of working class ballet dancers. Yet he is also admired for representing other aspects of modernity that reveal urban life in all its complexity and ambiguity.

In his, 'Women on the Terrace of a Cafe, Evening' (a small monotype with pastel) Degas has managed to compress the remarkably broad and complex imagery of the city street at night. This work was shown in the third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877.

Women on a Cafe Terrace in the Evening
Women on a Cafe Terrace in the Evening

On close examination of this painting, completed by Degas  in 1877,  we can detect that emerging human alienation which was to become such a feature of urban life, alongside the glittering facade of the nocturnal boulevard, revealing itself in the darker regions of bourgeois relaxation.

But even more intriguingly, this work illustrates one of the most important shifts in the moral and social life of the Parisian street. Fear of revolution brought about fundamental change.

Paris - Revolution and Redevelopment

Fear of revolution generated by the Paris Commune of 1871 meant a re-think of the way in which Paris itself was structured.  The tiny, cramped streets which could hide revolutionaries and where barricades could so easily be erected had to be destroyed.


Barricades, Paris 1848
Barricades, Paris 1848

One of the results of Baron Hausemann's redevelopment of Paris was that the medieval slums, difficult for the army to penetrate, were swept away and Paris became dominated by the wide boulevards and public spaces we recognise today.

Blvd. Haussmann, Paris The urban poor were in many cases swept away to the outskirts of town - another aspect of modern life familiar to us today.  But in Paris these changes also saw the emergence of prostitution from the police-controlled public brothels and into the boulevard cafes.

The girls were once on the margins of society and hidden away from public gaze.  They had to be sought out by their prospective clients.  Now they took their place in the public arena and their presence was viewed with fear by the 'respectable' classes. 

Books on Prostitution and Upheaval in Paris

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Are Degas' Women Prostitutes?

Some clues in the painting

Hollis Clayton, author of Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era has suggested that Degas was possibly concerned about the deregulation of brothels and the subsequent moral decline of public places. There is every reason, therefore, to suppose that the women in front of this particular cafe are prostitutes. Their clothes and hair styles and their whole persona of tired introspection give off an air of resignation.

Degas Women on a terrace, eveningThe central character, brighter by contrast to the other three, stares into the middle distance. Perhaps she is waiting for a prospective client, sizing one up, or signalling her availability. Her gesture with her finger is, Clayton suggests, a sexual signal suggesting fellatio. (On the other she might just be biting off a bit of annoying nail whilst eyeing up a prospect...)

As observers our view is complex. Can we see the reflection of the street in the glass of the cafe window, behind the girl, as though Degas is intimating that the bright lights and scurrying figures of bourgeois Parisian night life are merely illusions in constant flux? Or are we in the cafe itself, looking out onto the terrace and street?

How Was It Made?

And why does it matter?

In this work Degas has made use of some contemporary ways of making art.  It wasn't just the subject matter that was modern - but the techniques used also had a point to make.

The Monotype and the use of pastel

A monotype, which is the technique Degas used for Women on the Terrace of a Cafe, Evening,  does not require engraving. It is a unique print taken from a drawing or painting usually made on a glass or metal plate. The medium is often oil paint or printer's ink.

Here's another image The Cafe Concert, which Degas created from a monotype:

The Cafe Concert, DegasOnce the image is made on the receptive surface, the paper or board is pressed onto that surface, manually or with a press. When peeled off the results can be extremely striking and unpredictable.

Degas' addition of pastel to his print, Women on the Terrace of a Cafe, Evening, adds another layer of spontaneous texture to his 'accidental' creation. The very technique itself seems to reflect the movement and fragmentation of the bustling boulevard. The addition of pastel to the work incorporates the old and the new, and the swiftness and uncertainty of this medium may also be some kind of a moral statement.


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What Did the Critics Think?

They missed the point...

The critics recognised the subject matter as that of prostitution, but rather than throwing their hands up in moral outrage as usual, they chose to see a satirical edge to the print (or 'watercolour' as one critic mistakenly called it) and criticism was mild.

The art historian, T J Clark in his book, The Painting of Modern Life, suggests that this might be due to 'the pastel's small size and its odd, modest medium, ...its lending itself to an anecdotal reading, and...the fact that the women were fully clothed... [Therefore], critics were able to trivialise Degas' achievement.' 

So - the materials used and the size of the work did not have the prestige of a large oil painting and their use by Degas was seen by his critics as a reflection of his attitude to his subject matter. 

In other words, it was a small 'watercolour' so it wasn't being taken seriously by the artist. Nothing to worry about then!

Degas and the Japanese Influence

We can see in Women on the Terrace of a Cafe, Evening the influence of the Japanese print - a phenomena described by Eric Hobsbawn in his book The Age of Capital as "one of the most significant cultural by-products of the opening of the world to capitalism". 

These prints were used to wrap up the goods imported into France from Japan, and their impact on the art scene was considerable. In Women on the Terrace of a Cafe, Evening we can see the way the supporting pillars of the cafe dominate quite a chunk of the painting and the chair backs in the foreground are not shrinking violets when it comes to playing their part.  It gives the painting an immediacy, a fleetingness - as if you were glancing at the scene yourself as you walked by.

Here's a reminder of the painting - followed by a Japanese print of the time.

Degas, Women on a cafe terraceJapanese print from Brooklyn Museum



Another modern influence which interested Degas deeply was the camera.  Many of his paintings of ballet dancers were aided by photographs which he took whilst observing dancers in the studio.

Here's a rather strange photograph that Degas took which hints at the unsettling effects that photography was able to reveal.


Portrait of Henry Lerolle with two of his daughters, Yvonne and Christine and a mirror
Portrait of Henry Lerolle with two of his daughters, Yvonne and Christine and a mirror

In his Women on the Terrace...his interest in the 'accidents' of the camera are shown in the 'cropping' of the figures on the left and right of the work.

There is humour as well as pathos in the way in which the central figure is 'caught' in the ambiguous act of gesturing with her thumb nail whilst in the background a man scurries purposefully along the boulevard, cut off by the reality of the cafe support.

We have a sense of the 'caught moment' as it might be viewed by a male stroller, or 'flaneur'.


Women on the Terrace of a Cafe - Small but with plenty to say!

This little monotype embodies within it a fascinating glimpse into the social, moral, physical and artistic changes that were the result of the new modernity exploding onto Parisian streets in the late nineteenth century.

You can see this painting at Musee d'Orsay Paris. And if you are lucky enough to visit Paris, visit the Musee d'Orsay and have a look at this fabulous little work of art that says so much in such a small space and with such modest techniques. It's on my 'bucket list'!



T J Clarke: The Painting of Modern Life (Thames & Hudson, 1999)

Hollis Clayson: Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era (Yale, 1991)

E J Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995).


Copyright: K. Duffy

Updated: 06/08/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 06/07/2014

Mira - you are so right with your comments about composition. And symbolism! :) Thanks for this! :)

Mira on 06/07/2014

I think it's also quite amazing that in the monotype you describe the prostitute is smack at the center of the piece. Those pillars disguise that and also create some movement around her. Trust Degas to come up with interesting compositions -- and in this case, with quite a symbolic one :). Great article, Kathleen!

KathleenDuffy on 03/11/2013

Thank you Krimagi. That's nice of you :)

Guest on 03/11/2013

Quite a well done piece!

KathleenDuffy on 03/11/2013

Elias, so generous of you. I really appreciate your lovely comments. Thank you!

EliasZanetti on 03/11/2013

Amazing article! So well written and very well documented! Plus, I really like the subject, as well! Thank you for sharing, Kathleen! Thumbs up!

KathleenDuffy on 03/11/2013

Hi brenda - I love the dancers too. So glad I could share this lesser-known work with you. Thanks for your comment! :)

BrendaReeves on 03/11/2013

I am most familiar with Degas' dancers. Some of them hang in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA. Thank you for sharing the other works of Degas.

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