Degas’s L’Absinthe

The 1890s

Degas’s painting L’Absinthe was shown in London in 1893. This room looks at the controversy around this powerful work.

The painting was originally called In a Café. ‘L’Absinthe’ refers both to a green, poisonously alcoholic drink and the people addicted to it. The picture acquired this title in 1893, when it was exhibited in London. It was assumed that the two figures in a café show the disastrous effects of such addiction. The woman was thought to be a street-walking prostitute; the man a derelict alcoholic - he is drinking a hangover cure. This was a controversial subject for a painting, and Degas’s apparently casual treatment was unconventional and confrontational.

The painting was first owned by an important British collector of Degas’s work, Captain Henry Hill. He lived in Brighton, and had exhibited the painting there in 1876. But when it was shown again at the Grafton Gallery in London in 1893, it created a huge stir.

Critics were sharply divided. Some complained that the painting was a disgusting affront to good taste. Others proclaimed it a masterpiece.

The inexhaustible picture, the one that draws you back and back again.
D.S. MacColl on L’Absinthe, 1893

Edgar Degas L'Absinthe 1875-6 Oil on canvas

Edgar Degas
L’Absinthe 1875–6
Oil on canvas

Lent by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© Photo RMN H. Lewandowski

Degas portrays the seedier side of Parisian café life. The body language and expression of the young girl and her companion show the effects of the rough, poisonous green alcohol, often referred to as the green fairy.

When Degas exhibited the painting it caused public outrage, not least because he had shown well-known celebrities in private. The woman was the actress Ellen André; the man, a bohemian artist named Marcellin Désboutin.