Max Weber’s Joel’s Café: A Forgotten New York Establishment Comes to Light


Lisa N. Peters

Max Weber - Joel's Cafe, ca. 1909-10, oil on canvas

Max Weber, "Joel's Cafe," ca. 1909-10, oil on canvas, 25-5/8 x 23-1/4 inches

When Max Weber’s Joel’s Café came into the gallery, we enlisted the help of Weber scholar Percy North* in researching the painting and writing about it for us.  An aspect of the work that interested us especially was the identity of the café portrayed in it.  Dr. North wrote that the scene in the background, portraying a violinist and two female figures that appear to be singing from a sheet of music, suggested a cabaret.  She noted that the “combination of café and cabaret in a single painting is thematically related to Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and posters of the Moulin Rouge,” several of which Weber owned and North stated that “Weber’s admiration for Toulouse-Lautrec’s work had inspired him to create a number of café scenes” beginning in 1906, during his 1905 to 1908 sojourn in Paris.

Max Weber, "Joel's Cafe, 41st Street and 7th Avenue, NYC," illustrated in exh. cat., "First Comprehensive Retrospective Exhibition in the West by Max Weber," University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1968.

Max Weber, "Joel's Cafe, 41st Street and 7th Avenue, NYC," illustrated in exh. cat., "First Comprehensive Retrospective Exhibition in the West by Max Weber," University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1968.

Yet, Joel’s Café was painted after Max Weber’s return to America (the work is dated 1911, but it was exhibited as a work of 1910 in Weber’s retrospective at the Newark Museum in 1959, making its correct date ca. 1909-10).  So where and what was Joel’s Café?  Dr. North found a clue to help answer this question in Weber’s retrospective at the Art Galleries of the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1968, which included a sketch for the painting with an inscription noting the café’s location as “41st Street and 7th Avenue.”

However, with the exception of this address, no further information about the café had come to light until . . . . we received an email message from the great grandson of Joel himself!  Rod Richardson wrote to associate gallery director Gina Greer that “Joel’s Bohemian Refreshery” (as the café called itself in a postcard, which depicted its “The Cartoon Room”) was “a favorite watering hole for many of the leading writers, artists, poets, and chorus girls of the day,” and Richardson forwarded to us a link to a blog post that featured Joel’s.  As noted by Jan Whitaker in her ongoing blog Restaurant-ing through history, Joel Rinaldo’s was one of the “all-night eating and drinking places that thrived around Times Square in New York before the First World War.”

"Joel Rinaldo," illustrated in "You Musn't Crack Up the Darwinian Theory at Joel's," "New York Times, November 2, 1913.

"Joel Rinaldo," illustrated in "You Musn't Crack Up the Darwinian Theory at Joel's," "New York Times, November 2, 1913.

Further research brings Joel’s to life.**  Described as “a quaint place with a backwash of the bizarre cafés in Paris,” the establishment (located near the old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street) had two floors, an inn-like, rustic dining room upstairs plastered with theater bills and a downstairs bar that served Joel’s special “Blue Moons” (Weber’s painting is obviously of the bar). The patrons consisted of Mexican revolutionaries as well as writers such as O’Henry, musicians, newspaper men including regular Benjamin de Casseres of the Times (also a poet), actors, and artists, among them George Luks and the caricaturist Carlo de Fornaro.  Who was Joel?  We have turned up the following:  born in New York about 1870, he was of Northern Italian and probably also Portuguese descent.  Left an inheritance by his father (once a Garibaldian revolutionist) in 1892 that was spread among many siblings, he probably opened his café after purchasing the building at 206 West 41st Street in April of 1909.  Described as an “affable poseur” as well as a “celebrated eccentric and self-styled philosopher” who dressed “unfailingly in formal attire with a flower in his lapel” and wore pince-nez eyeglasses, Rinaldo was deemed by the Times in an article of 1913 to be “the only restaurateur in town who is a philosopher.” A photograph of Rinaldo in the article shows him attired in a high white collar, similar to those worn by the two gentlemen in Weber’s painting.  Considering himself a “scientist,” Rinaldo devised his own theory of evolution, which he felt would supersede Darwin’s, called “polygeneric creation” (1910)— (the Times writer of 1913 who visited Joel’s observed that it was “impossible to be sitting there seriously listening to what purports to be a new philosophy and which is propounded by the man who runs this home of tango and chile con carne.”  In 1921, Rinaldo self-published a book entitled Psychoanalysis of the “Reformer,” in which he used the theories of Freud in describing prohibitionists as neurotics in search of power.  Such a treatise no doubt related to his experience with such “meddlers.”  An article in the Times listed Joel’s as among several establishments that received summonses during a “Big ‘Dry’ Drive” in September 1920.  What ended Joel’s however, was his retirement in 1925, which the Times reported as marking the closing of the “only real bohemian restaurant left in New York.” While managing other real estate, Rinaldo spent his days on his Brooklyn porch reading literature and philosophy.

That Max Weber (1881-1961) was drawn to portray Joel’s was no doubt a carryover of time spent in Parisian cafés, notably Café du Dôme in Montparnasse, which drew the Anglo-American artists community on the Left Bank, as well as his observations of the café images of Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso (who knew Weber and visited him in his Paris studio), and others.

For the French Impressionists, the cafés of Paris such as Café Guerbois and La Nouvelle Athènes, were a symbol of the modern life they were trying to express.  An American manifestation of this phenomenon, Joel’s belongs to a lineage, from such early establishments as Le Divan Lepelletier, operated in Paris from 1837 until 1859 (visited by Gustave Courbet) through the cafés that opened onto the boulevards of a rebuilt Paris in the 1870s, the Barcelona café Els Quatre Gats that was a launching point for Picasso, and such establishments as Mouquin’s, the New York restaurant located between Fulton and Ann Streets, memorialized by William Glackens in his 1905 painting (Art Institute of Chicago) and frequented by members of the Ashcan School, and onto such loci of artist activity as the Cedar Tavern, where the Abstract Expressionists and beat poets hung out, to Max’s Kansas City, which catered specifically to the avant-garde artists of the 1960s and 70s including the post-painterly crowd championed by Clement Greenberg, and Andy Warhol’s entourage.

Weber’s Joel’s Café opens up an awareness of a establishment, lost to time, that is deserving of a place marker in the history of the unfolding of modernism in America in which Max Weber, as the first American cubist who returned from Paris fresh from seeing the innovations of Picasso and Matisse, played a pivotal role.

*Percy North is the author of Max Weber: The Cubist Decade, 1910-1920, exh. cat. (Atlanta, Ga.: High Museum of Art, 1991) and other publications on Weber.

**Information on Rinaldo derives from articles in the New York Times, articles found on ancestry.com, and other web sources.

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