Tag Archives: Absinthe

Absinthe Faces: Louis Anquetin and Matisse

21 May

“Seek for the boldest colour possible, content is irrelevant.”

(Henri Matisse)

Louis Anquetin, Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890, pastel on paper

These two paintings, Louis Anquetin’s pastel “Girl Reading a Newspaper” and Henri Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” were painted by different artists and are fifteen years apart, but both show the same thing; a half-length portrait of a woman wearing a hat. A portrait of a woman, even a woman wearing a hat, is not an uncommon things in the art, but the thing that connects these two paintings and makes them so unique is the colour. And not just any colour, but one colour in particular: the vibrant, radiant, glowing turquoise shade which, even if present in smaller quantities on canvas, nonetheless seduces the viewer and blinds him with intensity.

Anquetin’s pastel shows a fashionably dressed woman seen from the profile reading the newspapers. Thin lips pressed together and a slightly long, pointed nose give a disdainful, uninterested appeal to her face; her newspapers are more interesting than whatever else is going on around her. Her auburn hair and eerily pale skin, almost glowingly white like moonlight are contrasting beautifully with the domineering shades of turquoise and teal. The colour seems so unbelievably radiant and glowing, like some strange tropical flower or a bug with an iridescent hard shell. When I first beheld this portrait, I thought: this seems like a world seen through an absinthe glass! Even her eyelids have a turquoise shade, her skin is slightly blueish, her newspapers are vibrantly turquoise and there’s even some turquoise on the ribbons of her hat. Interestingly, this pastel was known for many years by the title “The Absinthe Drinker” which has proved to be incorrect, but the colours would surely justify such a title. This painting was shown at the exhibition in 1906. Anquetin’s paintings usually feature scenes of night life, the wild, gaudy and gay underground of fin de siecle so the connection of this particular colour with absinth is very suitable.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905

Nothing I have seen can surpass the vibrant, absinthe-coloured radiance of this pastel by Anquetin, but this well-known painting by Henri Matisse called “Woman with a Hat”, exhibited infamously at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, has the similar shades of untamed pure colour which doesn’t match the reality. Matisse’s wife Amélie posed for the painting and in real life she was wearing a black dress, but in the mind of her painter husband, the simple black dress was transformed into a jungle of colours which uplift the soul and excite the eyes and among them are the turquoise and teal shades which we’ve seen in Anquetin’s portrait. Matisse is dear to me and that is mostly due to his attitude towards colour. I just love to see an artist being untamed when it comes to colours; no lines, no shading, no imitating the colour in nature, just wild colours on canvas, colour for the colour’s sake. There is something so liberating about that. I love how the face, the dress and the hat in Matisse’s portrait of his wife are all just patches of colours, an expressive and exciting mosaic of shapes. There is a turquoise line contouring the woman’s nose and one on her forehead, how exciting is that!?

Edgar Degas – L’Absinthe

16 Nov

After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. …” (Oscar Wilde)

1876. L'Absinthe, oil on canvas, by Edgar Degas a

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.