Edgar Degas 1834-1917
Oil on canvas
Lent by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, the painting was originally called
L'Absinthe refers both to a green, poisonously alcoholic drink
and the people addicted to it. The picture acquired this title in 1893,
when it was exhibited in London. It was assumed that the two figures in
a café show the disastrous effects of such addiction. The woman was
thought to be a street-walking prostitute; the man a derelict alcoholic
- he is drinking a hangover cure. This was a controversial subject for a
painting, and Degas’s apparently casual treatment was unconventional and
The painting was first owned by an important British collector of
Degas’s work, Captain Henry Hill. He lived in Brighton, and had
exhibited the painting there in 1876. But when it was shown again at the
Grafton Gallery in London in 1893, it created a huge stir.
Critics were sharply divided. Some complained that the painting was a
disgusting affront to good taste. Others proclaimed it a masterpiece.
'the inexhaustible picture, the one that draws you back and back again'.
(DS MacColl on L'Absinthe, 1893)
Degas portrays the seedier side of Parisian
café life. The body language and expression of the young girl and her
companion show the effects of the rough, poisonous green alcohol, often
referred to as the green fairy.
When Degas exhibited the
painting it caused public outrage, not least because he had shown
well-known celebrities in private. The woman was the actress Ellen
André; the man, a bohemian artist named Marcellin Désboutin.
20 March, 1893
Here is a study of human degradation, male and female, presented with
extraordinary insight and graphic skill, with all the devotion to the
realisation (or idealisation) of squalid and sordid un-loveliness, and
the outward and visible signs of the corruption of society which are
characteristic of the most modern painting. Such a study would not be
without its value in a sociological museum, or even as an illustrated
tract in the temperance propaganda; but when we are asked to believe
that this is a new revelation of beauty – that this is the Adam and Eve
of a new world of aesthetic pleasure, degraded and not ashamed, a
paradise of un natural selection – it is another matter.
The best answer is, perhaps, another question – How could one live with
such a work? That is a test which never fails.
20 March 1893
Much too much has been made of ‘drink’, and ‘lessons’, and ‘sodden’, and
‘boozing’ in relation to the picture by Degas.
I know the work of Degas very well, and his titles, and his reasons for
them; and I will hazard the conjecture that l’Absinthe is not
his title at all. I would wager, though I do not know, that he called
the picture Un homme et une femme asis dans un café. This
conjecture, whether by chance it be correct or not, is my criticism on
the criticisms. I need not elaborate the importance of its bearing. If
l’Absinthe be, by chance, his title, it is to be taken as having no
further intention than such title as Rubens’s Chapeau de paille.
But Degas measures the exact range of a word as carefully and as
unerringly as he does that of a line or tone.
‘The New Art Criticism’
29 March 1893.
“You have asked me to answer a question. How could one live with such a
work as Degas’s L’Absinthe? For so the picture has been named,
but not by me … as a collector my tastes are wide. Corot, Matthew and
James Maris, Rousseau, Troyon, Constable, Gainsborough, Degas,
Rembrandt, Reynolds, are all attractive to me.Hobbema and Crome, De
Hooghe, Ostade and Mieris, Frans Hals and Terburg, all are beloved by
the owner of the picture someone has dubbed “L’Absinthe”. Yet I
am misguided enough to consider Mr. Matthew Marris, Mr. Whistler, and M.
Degas perhaps the greatest living painters in the world … I have lived
with L’Absinthe for many months. It was hung in a position
which enabled me to pass and see it constantly; every day I grew to like
it better. At last after frequent requests to sell, and wearied by the
questionings of those who were incapable of understanding it, I
exchanged it in part payment for another picture. It had not been away
for 48 hours before I went back to the dealer, and, in order to recover
it, bought another work by Degas, La Répétition. L’Absinthe
then went back into its former position. Such is the influence of Degas
upon one who has studied the great Old Masters all his life.
Charles W. Furse
18 March 1893
… no one has ever been so foolish as to try and eliminate ‘subject from
painting’, or to object to the presence of a literary idea. They have
merely said that it can never be the raison d’être of a picture … the
recognition of this fact in no way interferes with the axiom that a
picture must, in the first place, be a great painting … Mr. Richmond
believes that no one who looks at M. Degas’s picture can be interested
in its essential pictorial qualities!! Which recalls the sayings of the
late Master of Trinity that a certain person had plenty of taste, and
all of it bad. For it is difficult to understand the frame of mind of a
man who has devoted 30 years or more to the study of art, and then,
looking at L’Absinthe, is unconscious of those qualities of
draughtsmanship, design, and colour with which the picture teems.
However, I can assure him that any genuine admirer of the picture finds
in its delicacy of selection, the subtlety and research of its drawing,
and its curious charm of composition, intellectual beauties as
completely satisfying as a great symphony to a musician.
Degas in books (UK