This brilliant brush drawing was made about 1878 as part of Manet's effort to capture all aspects of the urban café. It belongs to a small family of closely related works in a variety of mediums, including two pencil drawings and a freely painted oil in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. In fact, it seems to have been made directly in preparation for the unsigned and undated Pushkin painting, which was possibly sold in Manet's lifetime to the collector, Tavernier.
Like many of Manet's brush drawings, this one owes a considerable debt to Asian traditions of painting. Using several brushes that were either "dry" or filled with india ink of various strengths, Manet defined the central figure of a worker seated alone at an outdoor café. This figure is shown next to a slumped-over, presumably drunk female, and both are seen behind a prominent tree trunk, which indicates that they are in an outdoor café. There have been attempts to identify the setting as either a café in the city, on place Moncey, or along the Barrière de Clichy at the edge of Paris. The latter theory seems more likely and has won widespread acceptance. Scholars have also argued over the relationship between this group of works and Emile Zola's novel, "The Dram Shop (L'Assommoir)," published serially to enormous acclaim, and controversy, in 1876-1877. No doubt a real similarity of subject exists between Manet's visual investigation of working-class drunkenness and Zola's literary one, but it would be wrong to interpret Manet's painting as an illustration of any particular passage in the novel. Indeed, whereas Zola treats the world of working-class alcoholism with a grim determination, relishing its most sordid smells, textures, and sounds, Manet remains aloof. The artist seems to feel an odd respect for the independence of this worker and his snoozing companion. They exist completely in their own world, unaware of the painter/viewer. While Zola's image of drunkenness is noisy and disgusting, Manet's is silent.
Manet never came as close to a proletarian subject as he did in this drawing and its related painting. Neither has played a prominent role in the interpretation of Manet's café subjects, possibly because the painting has been relatively inaccessible; it left France early in the century. Both it and this splendid preparatory drawing deserve to be better known.
"Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," page 67