L’Absinthe by Degas: The Ugly Side of the Belle Epoque

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L’Absinthe by Degas: The Ugly Side of the Belle Epoque
In honor of the exceptional Manet/Degas exhibition currently showing at the Musée d’Orsay, we’re taking a deeper look at one of the incredible paintings on display. Edgar Degas painted L’Absinthe in 1875-76, in the early days of the Belle Époque, but it is absolutely not a painting which reflects the fun and glamor of that heady era. In fact, at its first showing, it was deemed so shocking that it was hidden away in storage and not shown again for over a decade. Even then, critics still railed that it was a bleak work which presented a degrading view of humanity. The story of this piece, now in the permanent collection at the Musée d’Orsay, has much to say about the less glamorous side of Paris in the late 19th century. Originally titled Dans un Café, the painting shows two down-at-heel people sitting gloomily in a café in the early morning after a long night out. The woman is wearing quite a fashionable dress and hat, but both are shabby and her drooping shoulders and listless stare create a dismal mood. In front of her sits a glass of absinthe. The man sitting next to her, scruffily dressed in black, has a brown drink in front of him, perhaps mazagran, a cold coffee beverage which was often taken as a hangover cure. Although they seem to be sitting together, neither takes any notice of the other. Both are lost in their own melancholy thoughts and the bleak atmosphere is compounded by the painting’s colors: black, browns and greys, barely relieved by cream and small dabs of washed out green and yellow. Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe. (1875–1876). Public Domain The two figures were modeled by friends of Degas, the actress Ellen Andrée and the artist Marcellin Deboutin, but his depiction of them as down-and-outs, much the worse for wear, was so convincing that their reputations suffered and Degas was forced to issue a statement confirming that neither was an alcoholic. Those seeing the painting soon after it was finished would have immediately recognized the setting as the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes, a popular café in the Place Pigalle in  Montmartre which was frequented by many of the artists and writers of the day, including Degas himself. The painting was actually completed in his studio, but Degas must surely have done preparatory sketches in situ in the café. Ellen Andrée (1856 – 1933), actrice française de théâtre. Nadar. The painting was first exhibited at the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1876 and was so disliked by critics, who called it “ugly and disgusting,” that it was hidden away for 15 years. At its next showing, in 1892 at the Grafton Gallery in London, the reaction was, if anything, worse. Critics regarded it as an affront to morality. Walter Crane, writing in the Westminster Gazette, certainly didn’t mince his words, despite a grudging recognition of the artist’s technical skills: “Here is a study of human degradation, male and female, presented with extraordinary insight and graphic skill, of squalid and sordid unloveliness, and the outward and visible signs of the corruption of society.”

Lead photo credit : The Absinthe Drinker, Edgar Degas (1876), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France. Photo: Wikiart, public domain

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.


  •  Hazel Smith
    2023-05-18 11:59:12
    Hazel Smith
    Hi Marian - The proprietor of l'Eurydice in Paris's 5th Arrondissement, an absinthe bar featuring over 70 brands of absinthe made from original recipes, assures me that it is the high alcohol content that gives absinthe it's reputation, not the compound found in the wormwood. Great article!


    • Marian Jones
      2023-07-21 04:04:17
      Marian Jones
      Thanks, Hazel, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece and impressed at your assiduous follow-up! Next time I'm in the 5th arrondissement, I may well check out l'Eurydice - sounds like quite a place.