Absinthe by Edgar Degas
Interpretation of Impressionist Genre Painting

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Absinthe (close-up)
By Edgar Degas.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Modern Paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Absinthe (1876)


Analysis of L'Absinthe by Degas
Explanation of Other Impressionist Paintings


Name: Absinthe (L'Absinthe) (1876)
Artist: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Genre painting
Movement: French Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by Impressionist painters
like Edgar Degas, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


Although his painting shows some of the characteristics of Impressionism, and although he participated in seven out of eight of the Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris (1874-86), Degas was never a committed member of the Impressionist group. He had no interest in outdoor landscapes, preferring to concentrate on figure painting - mostly of the female form (working class women, female nudes at their toilette, or ballet dancers) - a tradition instilled in him by Louis Lamothe - former pupil of the neoclassicist J.A.D.Ingres - at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and developed by his own close study of Old Masters in the Louvre. Despite this reverence for academic art, Degas was resolutely modernist in both his composition and choice of subject, and produced some of the greatest genre paintings of his day. His paintings and pastel drawings of ballerinas - see, for instance, The Ballet Class (1871-4, Musee d'Orsay) - represent a unique contribution to modern art, and are unlikely to be bettered.

Analysis of Absinthe by Degas

From 1876 onwards, the Impressionist painters to some extent deserted the Cafe Guerbois on the Avenue de Clichy, and met at the New Athens (Cafe de la Nouvelle-Athenes) in the Place Pigalle near Sacre-Coeur, at the foot of the Montmartre hill. At the end of the 19th century, the square and the surrounding streets were full of artist studios and literary cafes. Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) were the only painters of the group who never went there. Degas and his friend Edouard Manet (1832-83) enjoyed going there, as also (but less often) did Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). Marcellin Desboutin (1823-1902), the engraver, also used to go there. The New Athens is the setting chosen by Degas for L'Absinthe.



The two characters in the picture are not anonymous drinkers, but friends of Manet and Degas, and had agreed to pose for Degas. They were Marcellin Desboutin and Ellen Andree (1857–1925), the latter a well-known actress in her day who did not flinch from this new role which required her to become ugly with a stupid tired expression and to wear clumsy boots and a frayed coat and skirt. In fact she was a popular model for Renoir (1841-1919) and Degas during the 1870s, appearing in numerous works including Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881, Phillips Collection). Beside her appears a dark-haired thick-set man (Desboutin), his features brutalised by alcohol.

The presence in Paris of the engraver, back from Florence, and the shape of the actress's hat, help to establish the date for this picture as 1876. It recalls irresistibly the atmosphere of Zola's L'Assommoir which was published in 1877 and one may imagine it to have been inspired by that novel.

Here again the set-up is out of alignment. The figures do not face the viewer but are placed along a rising oblique line. They are separated from the spectator by a rampart of cafe tables in white marble filling the entire foreground and cutting across one another at right angles. A few objects have been placed on them, two rolled-up newspapers, a matchbox, a carafe and a glass of absinthe.

In the same way that Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was drawn to paint the people who performed and mingled in Parisian night-clubs and theatres, so Degas was fascinated by lower-class women: by how they lived and behaved towards each other in their own social milieu. Absinthe is a perfect example of this. For more examples, see works like: A Woman Ironing (1873, Metropolitan Museum), Laundresses Carrying Linen in Town (1878, Private Collection), The Little Milliners (1882, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri), Women Ironing (1884, Musee d'Orsay) and Woman Combing Her Hair. Other outstanding works include: Race Horses in front of the Stands (1866-8), the controversial Portraits at the Bourse (1879) and his classical family portrait entitled The Bellelli Family (1858-67).

The manner in which the slightly fluid geometry of the tables holds the woman in place, one of them pinching her across the midriff, has more than a grain of observed truth about it. But the picture also has a powerful psychological dimension. The two protagonists are clearly out on the town together but neither of them are paying any attention to the other. They are both lost in their own private world. She has a drooping, self-absorbed air about her, while he is leaning forward and looking away, rather vacantly. There is a general air of both isolation and desolation. The name of the picture is strongly underlined by the all-pervading colour mood in which different blacks are pitched against creamy whites, pale yellows and translucent greens in a slightly delirious colour extension, perhaps, of the drink from which the painting derives its title. Indeed the work can be understood as a portrayal of the mind-numbing problems associated with absinthe, a harmful liquor which was later banned.

As usual, Degas has positioned the separate components of this compelling image with the utmost precision. We are obliged constantly to look past, through and beyond things, to shift our attention backwards and forwards between the real and the reflected space. This induced restlessness contrasts with and at the same time reinforces the woman's static inwardness.

Note also how Degas has framed the picture - cutting off the man's pipe and hand - giving the impression of a snapshot taken by an onlooker at a nearby table. But this notion is deceptive because, the picture was meticulously put together in the studio, not in the Nouvelle Athenes. However, the painting had such a realistic air about it that it cast a slur on the reputations of both Marcellin Desboutin and Ellen Andree. This obliged Degas to state publicly that they were not alcoholics.

Absinthe (originally entitled In a Cafe) was first shown at the Second Impressionist exhibition (1876), held at the gallery of the eminent art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) at 11 rue Le Peletier. It was one of 24 works shown by Degas, and perhaps not surprisingly, the art critics hated it. In 1893 it was shown again in England, where it was criticized as an affront to morality. In May 1893, the work (now known as L'Aperitif) was bought for 21,000 francs by Count Isaac de Camondo, who bequeathed it to the Louvre in 1908. It is now called simply L'Absinthe.

NOTE: For the story behind "Impressionism" and the group of French painters behind it, please see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

Explanation of Other Impressionist Paintings

Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (1873) Musee d'Orsay.
By Claude Monet.

Impression, Sunrise (1873) Musee Marmottan-Monet, Paris.
By Claude Monet.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) Musee d'Orsay.
By Renoir.

The Road-Menders, Rue de Berne (1878) Private Collection.
By Edouard Manet.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-2) by Edouard Manet.
Courtauld Gallery, London.


• For the meaning of other Impressionist paintings, see: Homepage.

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