”After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. …” (Oscar Wilde)
What’s hiding behind this, on the first sight, simple cafe scene in Paris? Who is this gentleman and the lady sitting sadly net to him? Are they sad, or just tired and exhausted from the life in the city?
Edgar Degas painted this painting called ‘L’Absinthe’ in 1876. The critics were absolutely repelled by it; they considered it ugly and disgusting, while the characters were deemed degraded and uncouth. It does seem dull, gray and lifeless at the first sight, but there’s something so appealing about this raw representation of modern life. The painting shows two isolated individuals who sit estranged in a cafe, waiting for the gray and lonely Parisian day to turn into something better. The man with a black hat on, is smoking a pipe and distractedly watching into the distance. The lady, who is also formally dressed, sits with a glass of Green Fairy, that is, Absinthe, in front of her. Their shadows can be seen on the wall, perhaps suggesting that they are themselves shadows of life, with their beat appearance, melancholic gazes, and the overall aura of resignation around them. The two individuals obviously have nothing else to do, for they are sitting in a cafe in the middle of the day doing nothing. Their position in society is questionable as is their reputation. Painted in grey and brown tones, this painting represents not only isolation and oppressive atmosphere of the city, but also the emotional aspect of the scene; the emotional burden of boredom and the meaninglessness of life.
Model for the man was Marcellin Desboutin, a painter, printmaker and a bohemian. The model for the lady with sad eyes was an actress Ellen Andree who also posed for the other Impressionists, such as Renoir. The cafe they’re sitting in is the Cafe de la Nouvelle Athenas; a famous meeting place for the Impressionists, both Degas and Van Gogh regularly visited the cafe, and many artists after such as Matisse. At the time the painting was painted, Paris was growing rapidly, the industry was changing the landscape and a new era was on the horizon. Degas’ choice of subjects reflects his modern approach. As a painter, Degas observes the modern life and paints it as it is, without embellishments, but also without blatant judgment or false morality. He favored painting ballerinas, milliners, laundresses, cafe scenes and denizens of Parisian low life.
‘L’Absinthe‘ represents the increasing social isolation in Paris during its stage of rapid grow. Degas used these individuals as a symbol for the isolation and oppression many people, especially the bohemians and workers who didn’t profit of Industrialisation, suffered from. These low existences represent the boredom, emotional coldness and detachment from nature which came with the rapid development of Paris in the second half of the 19th century. Seems like the absinthe is the only cure for their sad and disappointed face expressions.