L’Absinthe remains one of Degas’s most celebrated works. It achieved a huge notoriety when it was exhibited in London in 1893, mainly because of the storm of controversy which it provoked in the press.
Opinions were sharply divided, and the debate raised fundamental issues about what was, and what was not, acceptable in painting.
Collection of reviews
Anon [J. S. Spender], Westminster Gazette 17 February 1893
…the two works of Degas exhibited in this gallery bring so forcibly before us the artistic ideals of the ‘new painters’ that we really cannot forbear. One is called ‘Absinthe’… A man and a woman, both of the most degraded type, are seated on a bench in a wine-shop, their backs reflected in a glass screen behind them … the total effect … is one which most of us will be anxious to banish from our minds as quickly as possible, and neither of them tells us anything about M. Degas’ skill which we did not know about before.
D.S.M.[D.S. MacColl], Spectator 25 February 1893
L’Absinthe, by Degas, is the inexhaustible picture, the one that draws you back, and back again. It set a standard by which too many of the would-be ‘decorative’ inventions in the exhibition are cruelly judged. It is what they call ‘a repulsive subject’, two rather sodden people drinking in a café… so does this master of character, of form, of colour, watch till the café table-tops and the mirror and the water-bottle and the drinks and the features yield up to him their mysterious affecting note. The subject, if you like, was repulsive as you would have seen it, before Degas made it his. If it appears so still, you may make up your mind that the confusion and affliction from which you suffer are incurable.
G.M.[George Moore], Speaker 25 February 1893
We knew Degas to be a man of consummate genius…in the Degas we have execution equal to, though wholly different from Whistler; and we have a reading of character beside…Look at the old Bohemian- the engraver, Deboutin [sic]… The woman that sits beside the artist was at the Elysée Monmartre until two in the morning, then she went to the ratmort and had a soupe aux choux; she lives in the Rue Fontaine, or perhaps the Rue Breda; she did not get up until half-past eleven; then she tied a few soiled petticoats round her, slipped on that peignor, thrust her feet into those loose morning shoes, and came down to the café to have an absinthe before breakfast. 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. Hogarth’s view was larger, wider, but not so incisive, so deep, or so intense. Then how loose and general Hogarth’s composition would seem compared to this marvellous epitome…That open space in front of the table into which the skirt and the lean legs of the man come so well. How well the point of view was selected! The beautiful, dissonant rhythm of that composition is like a page of Wagner.
A Philistine Remonstrance, Westminster Gazette 9 March 1893
Critics have in times past talked a great deal of rhapsodical nonsense about pictures that in spite of it all remain classic and beautiful; but is there anything in the whole literature of the subject quite to touch this about the “mysterious affecting note” of table-tops, mirrors, water-bottles, and drinks? … the “new critics” are in possession of the most of the weekly and several of the daily papers, and with one accord they tell us the same thing. These two sodden people are their ideal … when a new critic comes forward to set up a new standard … we are entitled to ask for his credentials. “Academic” is, in D.S.M.’s vocabulary, a term of derision … the subject is nothing; the use of paint, the handling, everything … If it is the object of the painter to cut capers upon paper or upon canvas…why, then the two sodden people at the café may easily be “ the standard”, for Degas’s performances are astonishingly clever. If you have been brought up in another way, and have been taught to think that a dignity of subject and the endeavour to portray a thing of beauty are of the essence of art, you will never be induced to consider “l’Absinthe” a work of art, however “incurable” your “affliction and confusion” … This is not a quarrel between one method and another- between impressionism and realism … It touches the whole question of artistic ideals, and in that matter, at all events, not even the humblest of use need entrust his conscience to a group of critics, however assertive and unanimous they may be…
Westminster Gazette 11 March 1893
…D.S.M. assumes that because I object to L’Absinthe being paraded as a ‘standard’ of art, therefore I find Degas uninteresting. Not at all. I paid my little tribute to ‘the verve of the performance.’ I admitted its humanity. I don’t object when D.S.M. calls it a ‘lesson’… I only object when D.S.M. sets up these ‘two rather sodden people’ as a standard of art, and asserts that they are not ‘repulsive’. Here, I think, D.S.M. lets his admiration for the ‘handling’ confuse him. Fine painting it may be, but ‘fine art’ is a very different thing. When a work like this is set up as a standard of beauty, I think I discern the cause of the vulgarities and flippancies which are spoiling so many young painters.
W.P.H.‘The New Art Criticism’, Westminster Gazette 13 March 1893
…no artist can represent exactly what he sees. He is prevented by his material … be sure that his pictures will never fetch high prices. The painter has, however, a meaning, and we are grateful to a critic who is in his confidence, and can explain him to our ignorance. The artist can probably tell us something we did not know before if we are given the clue to his language… It is not forbidden to art to excite other passions than admiration. Pathos and horror are no more beyond he limits of plastic than of any other art … many men like tragedy, and it is clearly permissible to paint it.
That the defenders of the unusual, such as D.S.M.… should claim for it greater virtues than it possesses is not surprising. A discoverer always thinks too much of his novelty.
W. B. Richmond, Westminster Gazette 16 March 1893
The English Impressionists ridicule subject and ‘literary art.’At the same time Mons. Degas is their god. Now L’Absinthe is a literary performance. It is not a painting at all. It is a novelette – treatise against drink. Everything valuable about it could have been done, and has been done, by Zola. Hogarth preached sermons likewise but he painted them; and quite apart from their subjects, or rather in spite of them, Hogarth’s pictures are great works of painting, interesting and complete in every sense. It would be ridiculous not to recognise M. Degas as a very clever man, but curiously enough his cleverness is literary far more than pictorial. This is the reason, I suspect, why a certain set of writers have taken him up; they confuse his painting and his story-telling powers.
D.S.M., Spectator 18 March, 1893
Is it, or is it not, a toss-up, when a Ruskinian stands before a picture like L’Absinthe, what view his sentiment will impel him to take of it? In one mood, no doubt, he will sternly lay it down that the most stammering and imperfect attempt to portray the Heavenly Host would be more worthy and noble than any skilful delineation of boors carousing. But cannot one almost imagine him turning on his too faithful disciple as he regards Degas with so shocked and disapproving eye, and lecturing him thus: ’There is no more pitiful symptom of diseased modern vanity than for a man who has learned neither to see nor to draw, to think that he can cover the idleness of his imagination, and the impotence of his hand, by the exalted nature of his subject. Nothing, forsooth, will serve him but angels whom he has never seen, and is not likely to see! Let him rather, with what of faithful vision and stern veracity is in him, picture some corner of this God’s earth, some table-top, water-bottle, or the like! Let him leave the angels to those who have seen them, and paint his brother ‘boozing’ at the Blue Lion. So it may be given him in time to behold also the Heavenly Host’. The one sentiment is just as good, just as misplaced, as the other; and all the time the picture has not been seen at all.
Charles W. Furse, Westminster Gazette 18 March 1893
… no one has ever been so foolish as to try and eliminate ‘subject from painting’, or to object to the presence of a literary idea. They have merely said that it can never be the raison d’être of a picture … the recognition of this fact in no way interferes with the axiom that a picture must, in the first place, be a great painting … Mr. Richmond believes that no one who looks at M. Degas’s picture can be interested in its essential pictorial qualities!! Which recalls the sayings of the late Master of Trinity that a certain person had plenty of taste, and all of it bad. For it is difficult to understand the frame of mind of a man who has devoted 30 years or more to the study of art, and then, looking at L’Absinthe, is unconscious of those qualities of draughtsmanship, design, and colour with which the picture teems.
However, I can assure him that any genuine admirer of the picture finds in its delicacy of selection, the subtlety and research of its drawing, and its curious charm of composition, intellectual beauties as completely satisfying as a great symphony to a musician.
‘The New Art Criticism’, Westminster Gazette 20 March, 1893
Mr. Charles W. Furse, everyone knows, is an artist of great promise, and before he took the French poison he painted manly, and to my old-fashioned taste, admirable portraits … It is just because of those 40 years of the study of the best art of various schools that the galleries of Europe display, I do not confound good and not good painting. It is almost a truism to state the fact that none but the most highly-finished work in any of the three arts will bear the tests of time. Perfect craftsmanship, such as was Van Eyck’s, Holbein’s, Bellini’s, Michael Angelo’s, becomes more valuable as time goes on. Time adds to its value. The qualities admired by this new school are certainly the mirrors of that side of nineteenth century development most opposed to fine painting, or, sadly, fine craftsmanship. Hurry, rush, fashions, are the enemies of toil, patience, and seclusion, without which no great works are produced. Hence the admiration for an art fully answering to a demand. No doubt Impressionism is an expression in painting of the deplorable side of modern life.
It belongs to the interviewing, advertising, inquisitive evolution, and, therefore, its existence is regretted by serious artists, painters, writers, or musicians.
Mr. Furse compares the pleasures he and his friends derive from L’Absinthe as equal to those of a musician listening to a great ‘symphony’. The vault paintings of the Sistine chapel are like a great symphony. The very limited little picture under discussion is like a string quartette [sic].
Walter Crane, Westminster Gazette 20 March, 1893
Here is a study of human degradation, male and female, presented with extraordinary insight and graphic skill, with all the devotion to the realisation (or idealisation) of squalid and sordid unloveliness, and the outward and visible signs of the corruption of society which are characteristic of the most modern painting. Such a study would not be without its value in a sociological museum, or even as an illustrated tract in the temperance propaganda; but when we are asked to believe that this is a new revelation of beauty – that this is the Adam and Eve of a new world of aesthetic pleasure, degraded and not ashamed, a paradise of un natural selection – it is another matter.
The best answer is, perhaps, another question – How could one live with such a work? That is a test which never fails.
Walter Sickert, Westminster Gazette 20 March 1893
Much too much has been made of ‘drink’, and ‘lessons’, and ‘sodden’, and ‘boozing’ in relation to the picture by Degas.
I know the work of Degas very well, and his titles, and his reasons for them; and I will hazard the conjecture that l’Absinthe is not his title at all. I would wager, though I do not know, that he called the picture Un homme et une femme asis dans un café. This conjecture, whether by chance it be correct or not, is my criticism on the criticisms. I need not elaborate the importance of its bearing. If l’Absinthe be, by chance, his title, it is to be taken as having no further intention than such title as Rubens’s Chapeau de paille. But Degas measures the exact range of a word as carefully and as unerringly as he does that of a line or tone.
H. S., Westminster Gazette 24 March 1893
…D.S.M. seems to me sometimes narrow in his taste, but I feel bound to respect him for his attempt to show people that worthy commonplaces sweetened to suit the public taste is not art; and I believe that his advocacy of the purely painter’s qualities in a picture can do nothing but good.
‘The New Art Criticism’, Westminster Gazette 29 March 1893.
You have asked me to answer a question. How could one live with such a work as Degas’s L’Absinthe? For so the picture has been named, but not by me … as a collector my tastes are wide. Corot, Matthew and James Maris, Rousseau, Troyon, Constable, Gainsborough, Degas, Rembrandt, Reynolds, are all attractive to me.Hobbema and Crome, De Hooghe, Ostade and Mieris, Frans Hals and Terburg, all are beloved by the owner of the picture someone has dubbed “L’Absinthe’. Yet I am misguided enough to consider Mr. Matthew Marris, Mr. Whistler, and M. Degas perhaps the greatest living painters in the world … I have lived with L’Absinthe for many months. It was hung in a position which enabled me to pass and see it constantly; every day I grew to like it better. At last after frequent requests to sell, and wearied by the questionings of those who were incapable of understanding it, I exchanged it in part payment for another picture. It had not been away for 48 hours before I went back to the dealer, and, in order to recover it, bought another work by Degas, La Répétition. L’Absinthe then went back into its former position. Such is the influence of Degas upon one who has studied the great Old Masters all his life.