Painting of the Day

18 Dec



Dans un cafe (also called l’Absinthe). by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Oil on canvas, 1876. On view at the Musee d’Orsay. Paris. 

Notes from

The two figures in this painting are Ellen Andree, a noted French Actress, and Marcellin Desboutin, an artist and noted bohemian personality, sitting at the Café de la Nouvelle-Athenes, in Paris, France. In front of the woman sits a glass of the greenish colored liquid, Absinthe. It was first exhibited in 1872, where it was criticized as ugly and disgusting; at a later exhibition in 1892 it was removed from the show. It was shown a year later in England, where it sparked controversy. The woman in the painting was derided as a whore and the entire image was seen as a blow to morality and the degradation of society due to absinthe.

Notes from

Unlike his Impressionist friends, Degas was an essentially urban painter, who liked to paint the enclosed spaces of stage shows, leisure activities and pleasure spots.

In a cafe, a fashionable meeting place, a man and a woman, although sitting side-by-side, are locked in silent isolation, their eyes empty and sad, with drooping features and a general air of desolation. The painting can be seen as a denunciation of the dangers of absinthe, a violent, harmful liquor which was later prohibited. Parallels have been drawn with Zola’s novel L’Assommoir written a few years later and indeed the novelist told the painter: “I quite plainly described some of your pictures in more than one place in my pages.” The realistic dimension is flagrant: the cafe has been identified – it is “La Nouvelle Athènes”, in place Pigalle, a meeting place for modern artists and a hotbed of intellectual bohemians. The framing gives the impression of a snapshot taken by an onlooker at a nearby table. But this impression is deceptive because, in fact, the real life effect is carefully contrived. The picture was painted in the studio and not in the cafe.

Degas asked people he knew to pose for the figures: Ellen André was an actress, and an artist’s model; Marcellin Desboutin was an engraver and artist. The painting cast a slur on their reputations and Degas had to state publicly that they were not alcoholics.
The off-centre framing, introducing empty spaces and slicing off the man’s pipe and hand, was inspired by Japanese prints, but Degas uses it here to produce a drunken slewing. The presence of the shadow of the two figures painted as a silhouette reflected in the long mirror behind them is also expressive and significant.

 My comments:

It’s interesting how all the so-called “Impressionists,” among which Degas is listed (although, according to his biography at, he preferred to call himself a realist) managed to produce work that appears completely different from that of their fellow Impressionists; compared to Renoir, Sisley, and Monet, Degas’s work follows this trend (although I think there are stylistic similarities between his work and that of Mary Cassatt, another Impressionist; but this isn’t surprising since she and Degas spent a lot of time together as artists and Degas was a huge influence on her). Degas seems to combine the subject matter of the Realist with the stylistic philosophy of the Impressionist, using the gestural brushstrokes that capture the transiency of light and of every individual moment in urban settings that don’t always present the niceties and pleasurable activities of 19th century France. This makes me wonder who was actually truer to life, Degas or Monet/Renoir, who gravitated toward happier scenes? I don’t think that by virtue of its cynicism that Degas was more “honest” in his paintings than Renoir or Monet, because even in 19th century France, a time as chaotic as any other with its share of societal ills, there were happy moments. And besides, no matter the circumstances, nature can also be a source for gentle, peaceful beauty, and it is available at all times. Given this truth, the portrayal of happier or more somber themes must be a choice by every artist, not simply a response to conditions. Perhaps Renoir and Monet were just glass half-full type of people Degas was the opposite; or perhaps their choice of themes didn’t reflect personal temperaments but rather other motivations. 

Regardless, I think this is a fantastic painting by Degas, and I love how he can use so few brushstrokes to convey so strongly and clearly the expression of bored melancholy on the woman’s face. The shadows he paints on the wall for each figure are so thick, they’re almost separate persons in and of themselves, as if the woman and man have lost their souls and are just sacks of blood and bones. Are they so depressed because of the absinthe, or is their drinking of the absinthe a result of their depression? 


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