L'Absinthe - Edgar Degas
(1876, Musee d'Orsay)

L'Absinthe - also known as The Absinthe Drinker or Glass of Absinthe - is a painting by Edgar Degas. Originally called A sketch of a French Café, then Figures at Café, the title was finally changed in 1893 to L’Absinthe (the name the piece is known by today).

The painting is akin to a snapshot, of a famous Parisian actress, dressed like a prostitute, staring blankly ahead with the 19th century equivalent of cocaine in front of her, a glass of Absinthe. Next to her sits a tramp-like alcoholic, ready to drink his hangover cure, coffee.

For L'Absinthe, Degas asked the actress Ellen Andrée and the Bohemian artist Marcellin Desboutin to pose as two absinthe addicts in his favourite Parisian cafe, the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes in Paris. This picture could be considered as an example of Degas's portraiture or, alternatively, as a characteristic glimpse of the Parisian café.

The painting employs Degas favorite implement of setting the figure off center with an expanse of foreground. The diagonal entrance to the scene of the isolated couple reflects Degas's interest in photography and photographic composition and the use of arrangement with the dark but harmoniously related tones of color and shadow make the painting both unique and forceful. There is no use of chiaroscuro to show depth; cropping at edges; causing the space to recede on a slant. Here is the original application of Degas in using styling from Japanese prints and art resulting in a very flat composition.

Although there is no contact between them, the woman stares dully before her, her arms slack at her sides, not seemingly unaware of the glass of absinthe that provides the title for the painting. While the man turns from the woman, looking beyond to the right border of the painting. The picture is voyeuristic as Degas typically would have us participate so in the scene. The picture is voyeuristic as Degas typically would have us participate so in the scene. It is plainly seen that the two figures, appear to be habitués of the café. They have come to drink (her absinthe is deadly) and to find some solace for their mutual loneliness and despair. Indeed, the painting is a representation of the increasing social isolation in Paris during its stage of rapid growth. Degas portrays the seedier side of Parisian cafe 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".

Absinthe had been known of since biblical times; indeed, the name seems to have come from the Greek absinthion, meaning undrinkable. It was made from wormwood leaves and sometimes had an alcohol content as high as 80 per cent by volume. The modern absinthe story began in the 1830s when French troops fighting in Algeria used it as an anti-malarial, mixing it with wine to make it more palatable. They brought their newfound taste for the bitter drink home with them, and it soon became popular, particularly among the Parisian middle class who wanted to align themselves with the prestige of their soldiers.

Absinthe became the rage in France starting about 1850. In the second half of the nineteenth century absinthe became commonly known as "the queen of poisons" and in France was considered responsible for a range of social changes - from an increase in numbers incarcerated in asylums, to trade union unrest and even women's emancipation. It also became a symbol and a fuel for a caravan of creative individuals who made the nation a centre of artistic life, and artists including Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Gauguin, van Gogh and Degas either drank it or made it the subject of their paintings. At the time it was considered to stimulate creativity and act as an aphrodisiac. Absinthe, a wormwood liqueur with an alcohol content of up to 80 per cent, was rumoured to cause violent and crazy behaviour.

Did Degas try to portray the consequences of addiction to the poisonous drink? As an absinthe drinker himself, Degas was hardly known for his social consciousness. Or did he experiment with form? Art historians note that the scene was"retained in Degas's memory . . . in a pensive mood." He did not seek to inspire a moral, flatter them or make a `pretty picture' an idea he regarded with horror - although his work is impressionistic Degas was also very decidedly a realist.

The work was originally named In a Cafe, and was displayed without much reaction. In its first showing in 1876 it was panned by critics, who called it ugly and disgusting,and was bought by Brighton-based collector Henry Hill. He displayed it under the title A Sketch at a French Café, though with little reaction. However, when it came up for auction at Christie's in 1892 (now known as Au Café ), the lot was hissed at by the crowds and eventually sold for a mere £180. When the Grafton Gallery showed the canvas again in 1893, it deliberately aligned the work with the green drink by entitling it L'Absinthe for the first time.

A furore erupted in the media. Conservative critics lambasted it as a vulgar, boozy, sottish, loathsome, revolting, ugly, besotted, degraded and repulsive "study of human degradation". The persons represented in the painting were considered by English critics to be shockingly degraded and uncouth. Many regarded the painting as a blow to morality; this was the general view of such Victorians as Sir William Blake Richmond and Walter Crane when shown this painting in London. The reaction is an instance of the deep suspicion with which Victorian England had regarded art in France since the early days of the Barbizon School and the need to find a morally uplifting lesson in works of art that was typical of the age. Many English critics viewed it as a warning lesson against absinthe and the French in general. George Moore in trying to defend Degas was as superficial as any. `What a whore !' he had to say of poor Ellen Andrée and added, `the tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson', a remark for which he had later the grace to apologize.

At the turn of the twentieth century much of France (and parts of the rest of Europe and the USA) was on an absinthe binge, but the perceived social costs led to an attempt at its prohibition. Backed by the wine growers, the temperance movement targeted absinthe as responsible for alcoholism, racial degeneration and social instability. Numerous attempts were made to curb its production and consumption. Despite that, 1913 was a bumper year with a record 5.25 million gallons being consumed. At the outbreak of the First World War, the drink was seen as a threat to the nation, and in late 1914 Finance Minister Ribot told the National Assembly that to vote for the bill to ban absinthe was an act of national defence. Armed with the belief that it was causing mass desertion among troops, it was finally banned in France in 1915. (In what could be seen as an act of artistic defiance and a bohemian's farewell to the green fairy, Picasso made his famous Cubist bronze, Absinthe Glass, and individually painted six casts of it.)

French art and attitudes found favor with a marginal group of English bohemians who adopted absinthe along with other habits from across the Channel. Attempts were also made to duplicate the ambiance of the French café in the Café Royal in Piccadilly, as seen in such paintings as Sidney Starr's At the Café Royal and William Orpen's The Café Royal (1912). Though it was frequented by British artists such as Walter Sickert and William Rothenstein, the Europhile American James Whistler and Oscar Wilde, it was a diluted version of French culture rather than a natural expression of indigenous avant-garde life, and was not embraced by much of London society.

In the process Andrée, a well-known artist model, became a larger-than-life figure, a succès de scandale. Officials tried to calm the storm by claiming that the green drink in front of her was coffee or tea, rather than absinthe.

But others hailed it a masterpiece. Spectator art critic D S MacColl (who became keeper of Tate from 1906 to 1911), called it "the inexhaustible picture, the one that draws you back, and back again". Walter Sickert, who was the leading British artist of the time, was strongly influenced by Degas and proclaimed him to be "one of the greatest artists of all time".

The painting also draws comparisons to the more modern work of the American artist Edward Hopper, the celebrated Automat, for its portrayal of urban alienation.

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