Posts Tagged ‘Mouquin's Sixth Avenue’

This freewheeling French cafe and artist hangout had a colonial-era past

January 9, 2023

Sometimes you come across an image that compels you to do some research. That’s what happened when I found myself viewing this fleeting moment of intimacy below.

“At Mouquin’s” is a portrait by William Glackens, a founder of the Ashcan School known for his tender urban realist landscapes of New York City at the turn of the century.

In this painting, Glackens shows us two patrons at a cafe called Mouquin’s—a bustling, covivial spot on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in early 20th century Manhattan’s red-light Tenderloin district. It should be a lighthearted, jubilant scene befitting this decadent era before financial panic, the Great War, and Prohibition.

Yet the painting captures a disconnect. While a man of wealth and status tries to engage the interest of a woman sitting with him at a small table, she’s a million miles away—sipping a different drink, turned in another direction, alone in the crowd in 1905 New York City.

Who is this woman, and where is Mouquin’s? The Art Institute of Chicago, which has the painting in its collection, sheds some interesting light.

“In this vivid painting, William Glackens portrayed the members of his circle at their favorite meeting place, the New York restaurant Mouquin’s. Jeanne Mouquin, the proprietor’s wife, shares a drink with James B. Moore, a wealthy playboy and restaurateur, while the artist’s wife, Edith, and art critic Charles Fitzgerald are reflected in the mirror behind them.”

The members of Glackens’ circle also included fellow Ashcan School painters Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. The group began gathering for nightly rendezvous at Mouquin’s after Glackens, Henri, and Sloan all found themselves renting studio space in the Sherwood Building on Sixth Avenue and 57th Street, according to Bennard B. Perlman, author of Painters of the Ashcan School.

While Glackens captured the dynamic between men and women inside the cafe, Shinn painted the exterior of this unusual, colonial-looking structure in wet winter weather (second image, above).

That these painters chose Mouquin’s as their hangout isn’t surprising. Founded by Swiss immigrant Henri Mouquin, the cafe first opened its doors on Nassau Street, then moved to Fulton Street. In the early 20th century, Mouquin’s relocated to the Tenderloin. There, politicians, newspaper writers, artists, and authors enjoyed alcohol-fueled conversations until the 2 a.m. closing time.

This was no stuffy Gilded Age dinner spot. Mouquin’s “always was distinctly New York and like the city, thoroughly cosmopolitan,” wrote the New York Herald in 1919. “Because of this character it has the breadth and freedom of cosmopolitanism. It never troubles itself about the rules.”

What gave Mouquin’s even more atmosphere was the building’s pedigree as a surviving piece of colonial New York City. Originally an 18th century estate house owned by the Varian family, it served as headquarters for Hessian generals during the Revolutionary War.

In 1825, the house was converted into a roadside inn called Knickerbocker Cottage (above, in the 1850s). In the first half of the 19th century, Sixth Avenue at 28th Street was almost the country, far from the din and activity of the main city. By the time Mouquin and his wife moved the cafe here around 1900, the area was in the middle of theaters, gambling houses, and other nightlife venues, accessible via the elevated train roaring overhead.

Mouquin’s entertained an eclectic mix of New Yorkers until the 1920s, when it was done in by Prohibition. The vine-covered, Parisian-like facade disappeared when the structure was knocked down soon after. But what a convivial atmosphere this colonial cottage had in its late Gilded Age heyday!

[Top image: Art Institute of Chicago; second image: Fine Art America; third image: Columbia University; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Library of Congress]