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Edgar Degas 1834-1917
L'Absinthe 1875-6
Oil on canvas

Lent by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, the painting was originally called 'In a Café.' 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 confrontational.

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.

Walter Crane
Westminster Gazette
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.

Walter Sickert
Westminster Gazette
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’
Westminster Gazette
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
Westminster Gazette
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