In the painting by Norwegian-born and academically trained (Harris)Danish Impressionist artist Peder Severin Krøyer (Temple and Gallery) Interior of a Tavern (Kroyer), the viewer in 1886 would have seen a familiar scene from daily life, probably drawn from the village of Skagen, but perhaps worked on in Copenhagen (Mednick). It is portrayed in an intimate and naturalistic way that was in tune with the previous dozen years of Impressionism (Moffett). The subject can be seen as a record of a moment or as a reflection on the joys and sorrows of drink, hard work, aging, and small-town life.
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The artist portrays several people (all male) seated in a low ceilinged room with long tables and bottles and glasses in front of them. The room is lit by the low windows at the far end of the room. Advertising posters suggest that this is a drinking establishment rather than, for example, a union hall or a private home. The simple, heavy plank tables and benches are bare and shining from much use, reflecting the sunlight onto the walls. The air has the suggestion of smoke.
The living subjects fall into three categories. A solitary man is sitting in the foreground, accompanied only by a nearly empty pinch bottle and glass. A pair of men sit at the table behind him, with glasses in front of them. A larger group of men at the rear are in lively conversation under the sunny windows, with bottles and glasses at hand. The gentleman in the foreground smokes a long distinctive pipe, as do others in the background. Some of the men wear similar caps, and all seem to be wearing their outerwear indoors. All show evidence of years of outdoor work.
The man in the front also shows a cauliflower ear and a misshapen nose. Although his face is not seen straight on, there is the suggestion that he might have features resembling Laplanders. He looks as though he has emptied the pinch bottle himself since his lipsticks out, his eyelids droop, and he stares into nowhere. He is either very tired, or very intoxicated, or both.
There is a tradition of pictures of people drinking that includes even some paintings that are contemporary with Interior of a Tavern, such as Die Wurfspieler, by Claus Meyer (Meyer). It also includes some famous earlier drawings by Honore Daumier titled Physiology of the Drinker: The Four Ages (Daumier).
. There was a definite moral lesson to be drawn from Daumier’s work, suggesting that drink isolates and destroys social and family life. It can be inferred from Kroyer’s painting, but it is subtle. The man in the foreground could be interpreted as being in a pleasant state rather than a destructive one.
Kroyer may be using symbolism, but it is low-key, if so. The pipe and the bottle are two symbols of addictions, as understood in the 19th century. The tavern is a symbol of both a center for companionable interaction, as well as a place of dissolution, and a waste of time and money. The man sitting with a bottle all to himself is, perhaps significantly, by himself and not relating to anyone else. It could symbolize the need for moderation in all things, especially alcohol.
The picture quite likely represents a real tavern that the painter knew, probably in the village of Skagen. However, it is also possible that it was not painted in the tavern – this might have been cumbersome, although painting from life was becoming more the norm as one of the features of Impressionism. It is possible that the artist sketched his subjects on-site and painted them later in his studio. The notion of portraying real people in real settings was a feature of Realism, a movement of the latter half of the 19th century.
Impressionism often included elements of Realism despite the apparent contradiction between the two (Venturi). Capturing the natural light, both indoors and outdoors, was a characteristic practice of Impressionism, a movement that was about a dozen years old at this point. As a “cosmopolitan” participant (The Skagen Museum) in an artistic trend that spread all across Europe, Kroyer was doubtless attempting similar techniques. He had been trained in the Danish Academy (Bénédite), and by Leon Bonnat (Temple and Gallery), (Online) and thus probably had the skills to achieve whatever effect he wished. This suggests that the effect he produced was entirely deliberate.
This painting portrays working for folk sympathetically, if realistically. There is no caricature or romanticizing in the depiction of the rough-edged fishermen and farmers. They are worn by their lives and fallible in their indulgence in liquor, but they are real, and they are the sole subjects in the picture. Kroyer’s career was notable for several paintings that depicted workers, including the Sardine Yard at Concarneau, and Fishermen hauling nets, North Beach, Skagen.
Kroyer’s emphasis on the dignity of the working man may be related to a contemporaneous trend spreading across Europe and the USA, and represented by the establishment of an early labor union: the burgeoning labor movement (AFL-CIO). The worst abuses of the capitalist system were being answered by the organizing of workers. Nearly the same room seems to be portrayed in his 1882 painting: In the Store When There is no Fishing, with the implied cautionary message about the insecurities of this occupation.
The composition of the painting involves a closely observed foreground figure, two figures in the left middle ground, and a group in the right-hand rear. The verticality of the figures is offset by the horizontality of the tables and benches. The light comes from the rear and bounces off the surfaces. The floor and ceiling are darkest but the viewer can nonetheless see them. The ceiling features are low and form a decorative backdrop in addition to the posters on the wall.
Kroyer uses short brush strokes to evoke the rough surfaces of the men’s skin and textiles that they wear. The figures are delineated but the brushwork is loose enough that the painting looks most effective from a slight distance.
He uses muted colors with a lot of white to provide a sense of the idiosyncratic light in the room. The lighting is a complex combination of smoke and sun from the rear windows and where it bounces off the walls, tables, and ceiling. The implication is that the sun is intense, because the windows are not very large, and are set low in the wall. Kroyer captures multiple areas of reflected light with a competence that was noted during his era (Bénédite).
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He makes sure that everything is visible but maintains the strong, diffuse light in a way that his early critics described as mysterious (Bénédite). The artist creates a sense of depth that is believable. He uses techniques from classical painting to create the interior space, including showing beams and roof details that lead the eye to believe that the room stretches out behind the figure in the foreground.
The form of the painting is effective at portraying men in a manly setting, their features and clothes all roughened by wind, weather, and work. The light of the Skagen region is also a subject and invites the viewer to look outside the bright windows. The artist depicts even the bottle of liquor as a prism for this light. Although this is not a particularly “pretty” subject, it is compelling as Kroyer handles it. As an Impressionist and a leader among the Skagen School of Danish practitioners of this approach (Harris), Kroyer exemplifies in this painting the goals of capturing vivid impressions.
AFL-CIO. Our History. 2013. Web.
Bénédite, Léonce. Great painters of the XIXth century and their paintings, Volumes 1-3. London: Sir I. Pitman and sons, 1910. Web. 2013.
Daumier, Honore. Physiology of the Drinker: The Four Ages. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Web. 2013.
Harris, James C. “Summer Evening on the Beach at Skagen: The Artist and His Wife.” Archives of General Psychiatry 66.6 (2009): 580. Web.
Kroyer, Peter Severin. Interior of a Tavern. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Web. 2013.
Mednick, Thor J. “Danish Internationalism: Peder Severin Krøyer in Copenhagen and Paris.” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 10. 1 (2011): 15431002. Web.
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Online, Brittanica. “Leon Bonnat.” 2013. Brittanica Online. Web.
Temple, Alfred George and Guildhall Art Gallery. Catalogue of the exhibition of works by Danish painters. London: Art Gallery of the Corporation of London, 1907. Web.
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Venturi, Lionel. “The Aesthetic Idea of Impressionism.” The Journal Of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1941). Web.