L’Absinthe, Edgar Degas,

L’Absinthe, Edgar Degas,

Phil's chosen painting this week is... 


...Here's why

We all need people that influence us as children and I was fortunate that my sister was (and is) a wonderful English teacher and literature enthusiast. I don’t think many 11-year-olds in my day read Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad but I remember doing that one long summer. Even more to my liking was the author Emile Zola who my sister introduced me too. The first (gripping) book of his I read was Germinal but that was soon followed by L’Assommoir.

Now, I am sure many of you know (especially if you saw our recent film on Cézanne) that Zola plays a role in late 19th century art history but what struck me about L’Assommoir was the cover. Yes, you guessed it: L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas. It was – and is – so striking. The work was painted by Degas in 1875/6 and first exhibited in the Second Impressionist exhibition held in art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in rue le Peletier. The ‘easier’ artists had front rooms and the ‘harder’ artists (including Degas) were sent to the back. Degas had over 20 works on display (including The Cotton Office which is magnificent and can be seen in our forthcoming Edgar Degas film). Among them was one called In the Café.

According to Sue Roe in her excellent book The Private Lives of the Impressionists the Irish art critic and writer George Moore was there and his views were strident:

"Heavens! What a slut. A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face, we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson."  

Each to their own, I suppose. That is not what I see.

I see exhaustion and sadness at the impossibility of escaping from the drudgery of working class life in Paris. Actually the female model – an actress Ellen Andreé – was rather hurt by how she was portrayed by Degas. Some even assumed she herself must be an alcoholic and this upset her even more. The male model, by the way, is Marcellin Desboutin, another artist. Certainly it depicts isolation, an inability to communicate, even hunger. Look beyond the narrative too: the skill of Degas the painter is wonderful to behold. The marble tables, the metallic walls, the collapsed shoulders, the scruffy clothes and even the absinthe drink itself. Moreover there is an amusing connection to the city in which I live – Brighton in the UK.

One of the first art dealers in the UK was a Captain Henry Hill. He bought In the Café and showed it in September 1876 in the Third Annual Winter Exhibition of Modern Pictures – literally minutes from where I am writing this now, 142 years later. He exhibited it as A Sketch at a French Café. It is, of course, far more than that – it is a masterpiece. It is believed that when it was shown in London in 1893 the name was changed to L’Absinthe. And Zola? Well, it is likely that he saw the 1876 exhibition and it is probably no coincidence that L’Assommoir (which recounts the ravages of alcoholism in Paris’s poor) was released the following year.

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Thanks for reading! Catch us next week with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo5