More than 60 people sit, chat, and play in this elaborate composition outside the entrance to the Jardin Turc, or Turkish Garden Café, in early-1800s Paris. The café was known for its spacious gardens, exotic pavilions, and excellent ice cream, but the painter, Louis-Léopold Boilly, shares with us only the exterior wall of this famed hot spot, focusing on the spectacle of the bustling curbside.
It’s rich with abundant detail and precision. The closer one looks, the more characters begin to reveal themselves. Several figures return the viewer’s gaze—many quite intensely.
We make eye contact with the following people, moving left to right in the painting: a man in the doorway, and a couple in the ticket window shaded by the striped-green awning; next, a couple in the center—a man resting his chin in his hand wearing a bicorne and a woman in a lavender feathered hat; then, an older woman just beyond the tree; coming to an end with the artist himself, in spectacles and a top hat.
Why do these characters look back at us? Perhaps the painting isn’t actually about a café, or gardens, or middle-class leisure, or ice cream. It’s about viewing. And that’s precisely why Boilly chose this exterior view.
The real pleasure of the Jardin Turc was seeing and being seen. Some characters, like the aristocratic woman standing at the left, bask confidently in Boilly’s spotlight (and our gaze). Others retract into anonymity and shadow, preferring viewing over being on display. And still others, like the street urchin in the left foreground, are forced by economics to thrust themselves into view.
And we’re seeing and being seen, too. Through a space of nearly 200 years, this painting is looking back at us.
Becoming part of this scene is thrilling. It reminds me that interacting with human beings is—or can be—a beautiful experience.
What do you think: Are you, the viewer, part of this artwork? Does an artwork need a viewer to come alive?
Question of the Week is a series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours, offered daily at 4:00 p.m. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week.