by JS

L'Absinthe, Oil on canvas, 1875-6

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas’s ‘L’Absinthe’ (1875-6) is steeped in the Impressionist aesthetic. It depicts Ellen Andree, an actress and artist’s model, alongside Mercellin Desboutin, a painter and engraver, sitting in the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes in Paris; then a hubbub of bohemia and art. Both of Degas’ subjects appear preoccupied, uninterested and glum; pre-empted by, but avoiding eye-contact with their alcoholic beverages. On first glance, the painting appears to be relatively light and airy, masquerading innocently behind its predominance of light colours. With subsequent viewings, however, one can increasingly note the darker tones of the image, which shadow and creep in the unmoving atmosphere surrounding the figures. Upon its original showings, ‘L’Absinthe’ masqueraded under different, less provocative titles such as ‘A Sketch at a French Café’. In these exhibitions the painting didn’t stir a great deal of reaction with its subject matter, and was rather debated for its aesthetic qualities and Impressionist style. Later, however, a new title would force audiences to notice its dark undertones.


Within ‘L’Absinthe’, there is an obvious delight in capturing the spontaneous, superbly fractious nature of light, as the reflection of the glass and sheen of the woman’s attire both capture and beautify detailed light in a painting otherwise delving into rough sketchy brushwork and a wintry, earthy palette. This differentiation between effortless detail and graceful looser strokes, as well as the loose space around the comparatively compacted figures leads our gaze to trace to the latter, in a similar manner to the suggestive snaking movement of the tables. Our eyes fall upon the faces of the two subjects, predominantly the woman’s, wherein a perhaps empathetic, inescapable humanist connection lies. With her shoulders slumped forward, and her eyelids heavy, contemplating the Degas’ woman, who is full of such weighty complacency provokes a sad bond between viewer and subject, as we become immersed and involved in an idea of a narrative.


The narrative becomes realistic as the edges of the painting sever the tables and the man’s pipe and knees. This rather small-seeming detail transforms the painting into a lifelike snapshot. It is completely naturalistic in its view as the figures surpass a square, comfortable insertion within a frame, and spill out of it, along with their surroundings. This fascination with attempting to depict scenes as the eye truthfully sees them was a typical staple of Impressionism, and was encouraged by the new popularity of photography. Degas snatches a glimpse of reality and reveals to us what was always there, but rarely contemplated with truthful integrity.


In 1893, the painting landed its definitive and final title, ‘L’Absinthe’. Although its Impressionist style had up until then been the spark in debate, its newly found name introduced a more moralistic argument. By the late nineteenth century, absinthe had surpassed wine as the preferred drink of the working classes in France and its drinkers were the primary target of the French temperance movement.  Aside from becoming a health hazard, the drink gained a reputation as a degrader of society, apparently heightening trade union unrest, admissions to mental asylums, and other social adjustments. Absinthe then, in Degas’ painting, moves beyond a mere prop and, fuelled by its inclusion in the title, becomes a bleak observation of society at the time and to some a signifier of the deterioration of modern society.


The implications of the painting’s new title made it, to many, an overtly moral comment. It was now widely viewed as an abhorrent display; a disgusting insight into humdrum, downtrodden, and decaying lives. The focus of ‘L’Absinthe’ was irrevocably transfigured from lightness of composition to the darkness of its subject matter.