The long path that led to By the Table is reconstructed through several sketchbooks that, together with the abundant correspondence of the artist, allow one to follow the elaboration of his work: as early as late 1864, Fantin planned to present a Meal at the Salon of 1865, the subject of which would be diners grouped around a table and toasting a universally acclaimed artist (Rembrandt or Velasquez), whose portrait would hang on the wall behind them.
After several preparatory sketches, Fantin altered his initial composition and, at the Salon of 1865, he exhibited a kind of realistic allegory, The Toast: a nude woman symbolising Truth surrounded by a group of artists who drink in her honour. Unsatisfied, he was to destroy this painting on its return from the Salon. After the 1870-1871 war, Fantin decided to paint Baudelaire - The Birthday, representing twelve poets grouped around a table with, on the wall, in evidence, Baudelaire's portrait. He made several studies towards this painting in December, 1871. Yet, at the Salon of 1872, he did not exhibit a painting glorifying Baudelaire, but instead presented By the Table, an artwork for which no preparatory documents are left: neither letters, drawings nor testimonies. The white table in the foreground is again part of the composition, with a vividly-coloured dessert, contrasting with the dark group of poets who occupy the rest of the space, in an elaborately thought-out asymmetry.
All belonging to the Parnasse, a poetical revival movement that prevailed in France in the 1860s, the diners of By the Table shared a common enterprise: the founding of a review, La Renaissance littéraire et artistique (The Literary and Artistic Rebirth), to which Mallarmé, Villier de l'Isle-Adam, Charles Cros, Germain Nouveau, Verlaine, and many other, now-forgotten poets collaborated from April 1872 to May 1874. The place of the diners in the composition reflects the organisation of the review: standing at the centre of the painting, Emile Blémont, its chief redactor, is side by side with his closest collaborators Pierre Elzéar and Jean Aicard. These three characters stand out by the elegance of their costume. With the exception of Verlaine and Rimbaud, who sit apart in the left corner of the picture, the other sitting models, Léon Valade, Ernest d'Hervilly, Camille Pelletan, are also regular collaborators to La Renaissance.
The question, therefore, now is: why Verlaine, why Rimbaud?
The painting, in appearance so serene, turns out to be a place of poetical struggles that sometimes degenerated into brawls. A discreet homage to a newly founded review, By the Table also highlights a moment in literary history, this wavering transitional period when the Parnasse movement ran out of breath, and some were looking for new solutions: Verlaine and Rimbaud's presence in a painting devoted to minor Parnasse poets is here to testify to this.