“A document from the generation of Swedish artists who, from the start
of the 1880s, lived, toiled, cried and laughed in Paris.”
This painting by Hugo Birger, depicting the morning rush, is actually called “Skandinaviska konstnärernas frukost i Café Ledoyen, Paris, fernissningsdagen 1886” (Scandinavian artists breakfasting at Café Ledoyen, Paris, opening day of exhibition 1886) and was purchased by Pontus Fürstenberg and donated to Gothenburg Museum in 1887. It certainly brings to life the circle of artists that made history at Södra Hamngatan in Gothenburg, as well as in Paris, and their relationships prior to the opening of the Salon exhibition in Paris in 1886.
Although the artists’ lives were often marred by setbacks, poverty and hard work, Birger’s painting depicts the carefree and spirited atmosphere that also could prevail. The sweet life, which is how we regard life here at Palace. Popping champagne corks may or may not feature in your breakfast here, but our “Ledoyen” room is still perfect for celebrations and enjoyment, as well as for hard work.
Hugo Birger himself is visible in the painting, with his protruding red beard, as he raises his champagne glass in a toast. He wrote several letters to Fürstenberg from Paris about his concept for the painting, as well as how it was then initiated and completed. Pontus funded Birger’s stay in Paris during the last few months of his life, a time Birger hoped to use “...free of grief and exclusively for ‘Le jour du vernissage’ ...”
Birger’s painting gives a sense of a moment captured in time, but this group portrait was obviously arranged and researched carefully with sketches and preliminary studies. Birger carried props from the restaurant to his Paris studio to complete the painting in a more academically schooled form. He was, after all, an artist with his feet in two different artistic worlds. He loved free nature painting and the approach of the impressionists, but could not quite tear himself away from an approach associated with safe and meticulous studio work.
Among the many artists who Pontus Fürstenberg supported, Hugo Birger was a clear favourite. The basis for their close friendship had been laid early on, thanks to the Fürstenbergs’ love of collecting artworks and socialising with the art world. Birger was also an incredibly popular personality with the other artists. One by one they modelled for Birger at his studio as he worked to complete the painting: Carl Larsson, Ernst Josephson, Per Hasselberg, Georg Pauli, and others. Birger was a true friend to his artist colleagues, as several letters confirm, and although he was popular with Pontus Fürstenberg, he also wanted others to do well. In 1883, Pontus received a telegram from Hugo Birger and Georg Pauli, who were in Paris and had visited the annual Salon exhibition: “Buy Larsson’s watercolours, excellent, price 2,000 francs.”
Towards the end, Birger was very frail and sickly due to rheumatism and the onset of tuberculosis. “Ledoyen” would be his last painting, the largest and for many the most beloved. In this context, the picture can be seen as a tribute to successful Swedish fin-de-siècle art, a fanfare for a painter who played a major role in his time, and a farewell to the artist friends who shared the last days of his life. Or to quote Carl Larsson: “a document from the generation of Swedish artists who, from the start of the 1880s, lived, toiled, cried and laughed in Paris.”