Edgar Degas - L’absinthe 1876; Oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm (36 1/4 x 26 3/4 in); Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Since the characters are known, this picture could be considered as an example of Degas’s portraiture or, alternatively, as a characteristic glimpse of the Parisian café. The woman is the actress Ellen Andrée, the man Marcellin Desboutin, painter, engraver and, at the same time, celebrated Bohemian character. The café where they are taking their refreshment is the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes. Desboutin —- a popular figure —- seems to have led the move of those concerned with the arts from their previous rendez-vous, the Café Guerbois, to the Nouvelle-Athènes. It was frequented by Manet and Degas, by some critics and literary men as well as painters and had an interested observer from across the Channel in the young George Moore. The painting shows Degas’s favourite device of placing the figures off-centre with a large intervening area of space in the foreground. A forceful and original composition results from the mode of arrangement and the dark but harmoniously related tones of colour and shadow.
Degas evidently retained in memory a moment when his sitters were in pensive mood. He did not seek to flatter them or make a `pretty picture’ (an idea he regarded with horror). On the other hand nothing could have been farther from his thoughts than to depict these familiar acquaintances as monsters of dissipation and degradation in order to draw a moral lesson. It might be observed, incidentally, that Desboutin was drinking nothing stronger than black coffee! In England, however, the persons represented were considered to be shockingly degraded an by an involved piece of reasoning the picture itself was regarded as a blow to morality. So it appeared to such Victorians as Sir William Blake Richmond and Water Crane when shown in London in 1893. The reaction in 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 lesson at all costs that was typical of the age. George Moore in trying to defend Degas was as unperceptive as any. `What a slut!’ 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.