A Brief History of Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona
What is Els Quatre Gats?
Els Quatre Gats is a café that was established in the late 19th century and was once a popular haunt of influential Modernist artists and bohemian intellectuals.
MARIA ROSA FERRE ✿ from Vilafranca del penedes, Catalunya, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Els Quatre Gats History
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Els Quatre Gats (or The Four Cats) was a meeting point for Barcelona's most prominent Modernist artists, including Antoni Gaudí, Pablo Picasso and Ramon Casas i Carbó. Though today the café is mainly a cult tourist destination, its history is inextricably tied to Barcelona’s artistic scene.
The idea for Els Quatre Gats came from its owner Pere Romeu's stint working in Le Chat Noir (or The Black Cat) in Paris. During his time there, he fell in love with the café’s decor and atmosphere, and decided to open somewhere similar in Barcelona. Romeu’s vision was financially supported by three major Modernist artists and some of his closest friends, Ramon Casas i Carbó, Miquel Utrillo and Santiago Rusiñol. Romeu named his café Els Quatre Gats, which alludes to both Le Chat Noir in Paris and the four founders. The name also echoes the common Catalan expression quatre gats (meaning ‘only a few people’), which aptly conveyed the nature of the city’s Modernista circles at the turn of the 20th century.
The café opened in June 1897 in the Casa Martí, a grandiose neo-Gothic house designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch just the year before. The handsome building, imitative of a medieval palace, includes splendid ironwork balconies, elaborate stone carvings and stained-glass windows. For the interior, Romeu’s friend and financial backer Casas i Carbó produced a large oil painting depicting the two of them riding a tandem with Barcelona’s skyline visible in the background – a copy of which can still be found inside.
Els Quatre Gats soon became a popular haunt for influential artists and bohemian intellectuals. Writers and artists met there to exchange ideas and discuss current affairs. As the café grew in popularity, it began hosting art exhibitions, poetry recitals, and musical performances. Notably, an 18-year-old Pablo Picasso hosted his first solo exhibition in the main room in 1900. Like many other artists, he left a reminder of himself in Els Quatre Gats by designing the poster now displayed outside the building. Pere Romeu’s café became known for its eclectic clientele and as a place that offered 'food for the soul'.
Unfortunately, the only good food to be found there was ‘food for the soul’. The plates served at the café were often mocked and after a few years the establishment lost its early reputation for excellent coffee. Els Quatre Gats closed its doors in July 1903, when most of its patrons – including the three founding artists – started frequenting another of the city’s cafés. However, its legacy lived on, thanks to the efforts of Ramon Casas i Carbó and Miquel Utrillo. The two men published a literary review inspired by the café for five years after Els Quatre Gats closed. It became the artistic and literary platform of Catalan Modernism. The review invited the city's Modernist artists to talk frankly about their works. Aimed at Barcelonans and artists alike, the magazine included serious and humorous articles as well as pieces explaining contemporary architecture to the people of Barcelona.
For over seven decades afterwards, the café retained its cult status, which eventually caused the city council to restore the location to its former glory. Officials argued that the restoration would benefit the city’s cultural environment, which had suffered greatly under the Francoist dictatorship. The café was eventually reopened to the public in 1985 and the location has since become a key destination for all lovers of Catalan art and literature.