Soupe à trois sous

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 64
Date: 1859
Medium: etching
Size: 152 x 228 mm
Signed: 'Whistler. -' at upper right
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 1
Known impressions: 56
Catalogues: K.49; M.49; T.25; W.27
Impressions taken from this plate  (56)


café, food, interior, man seated, people, portrait, wine-bottle.


Although most writers call this 'Soupe à trois sous' there are some alternative suggestions:

'Café des Pieds Monilles' (1874, Whistler). 2
'Soup à Trois Sous' (sic) (1874, James Anderson Rose (1819-1890)). 3
'Matrosenkneipe' [sailor's pub] (1881, Berlin). 4
'Soupe à trois sous' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 5
'La Soupe à Trois Sous' (1905, Paris). 6

Whistler's first title, 'Café des Pieds Monilles' implies a particular café. 'Café des Pieds Monilles' is almost certainly a garbled reference to the Parisian Café des Pieds-Humides ('Café of the Wet Feet'). However, this title seems to have been immediately rejected in favour of the more familiar 'Soupe à trois sous'.

'Soupe à trois sous' is French for 'Soup for three sous', which was very cheap soup, and implies that the restaurant was a very basic café/bar.

2: London Pall Mall 1874 (cat. no. 28).

3: Liverpool 1874 (cat. no. 517).

4: Berlin 1881 (cat. no. 712).

5: Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no. 27).

6: Paris Mem. 1905 (cat. no. 303).


Five men are seated at wooden tables in a cheap restaurant at night. In the left foreground, behind a table, sits a man with dark curly hair, a moustache and small pointed beard, facing the viewer. On the table are two plates on a tray, an empty glass and a fork. Behind him, to his right, a man wearing a cap and a cape bends over a table on which are a black bottle at left and a carafe at right; opposite him, a man with his hat drawn over his eyes and head bent forward sits cross-legged on a chair, sleeping. At the table on the right, a man wearing a dark cap or bonnet sits resting his head on his hands, with a glass and carafe in front of him. Opposite him, facing left, a dark man with a beard wearing a hat is eating from a plate and bowl, with a black wine-bottle behind him. There is a gas light in the ceiling. At left is a dark door and above it, a skylight.


E.D. Wallace (fl. 1871-1887), poet, novelist and writer on art, writing in 1876, assumed that it included Whistler himself: 'he has concealed his face under the shadow of a slouched hat, as he sits in an old cabaret at midnight, with five male figures sleeping around the table in different attitudes of weariness and exhaustion. There sits the artist sketching the scene...' 7

The Pennells, writing in 1908, interpreted the scene differently: 'Soupe à Trois Sous was done in a cabaret kept by Henri Martin, whose portrait is in the print and who was famous in the Quartier for having won the Cross of the Legion of Honour by his bravery at an earlier age than any man ever decorated, and then promptly losing it by some shameful deed.' 8 Later, in the Whistler Journal, the Pennells, having consulted Théodore Duret (1838-1927), added:

7: 'Mr Whistler's Paintings', Baltimore Gazette, after 1 April 1876, in GUL PC1/75; partially quoting E.D. Wallace, 'The Fine Arts Abroad', Forney's Weekly Press, Philadelphia, 1 April 1876.

8: Pennell 1908, I, p. 70.

'Henri Martin, he [Duret] thinks, must be the son of the historian, who did a little painting. The man in Soupe à Trois Sous was another Martin, a soldier, given the cross of the Legion of Honour at sixteen for bravery in 1848. He planted a flag on the top of a barricade. He was the youngest man who ever received the Cross. Afterwards it was taken from him for misconduct.' 9

9: Pennell 1921C, pp. 91-92.


The Café des Pieds-Humides was established in 1845 opposite the Rue aux Fers and the Fontaine des Innocents near Les Halles. According to a popular legend, the water would pour inside when it rained and wet the customer's feet, hence the name. 10

It is not, apparently, to be confused with the Café des Pieds-Humides on the Rue de Courcelles, 'the very sign-board of which makes one shudder'! 11

10: Auguste Lepage, Les Cafés artistiques et littéraires de Paris, Paris, 1882, p. 289-90.

11: Albert D. Vandam, French Men and French Manners, London, 1895, p. 274.


Lochnan compares the subject both to another etching by Whistler, Longshore men [52], and to Le Buveur d'absinthe (The Absinthe Drinker, 1858-1859) by Edouard Manet (1832-1883), now in the Ny Carlsberg-Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark:
'The low-life subject, naïve drawing, and construction of the picture space recall the Thames etching Longshoremen ... A sinister element is injected into the sordid surroundings by the black bottles at the elbows of the men who sleep seated or sprawling across the tables. They recall the prominently placed bottle in Edouard Manet's painting The Absinthe Drinker, refused at the Salon of 1859, which Whistler would have known.' 12

12: Lochnan 1984, p. 102.