The Absinthe Drinker, a painting originally called Dans un Café, is an oil on canvas painted between the years of 1875 and 1876. It was an immensely controversial and critiqued artwork for its time, and it was put away up till 1892 when it was brought back to display. It was produced in the middle of Degas’ sea of graceful ballerinas and immediately cause a great commotion from his admirers.
The composition shows an urban Parisian cafe, where a woman and a man sit side by side. There are two tables in the panel, but they share one on the right. Despite the scene suggesting they are together, both stare into the void, not talking to each other or interacting in any way, immersed in their thoughts. They are not posing for the artist, lacking poise and elegance. The scene feels very natural; two people distracted sitting in a cafe. They are sharing a glass of Absinthe, and an empty bottle lies on a tray on the table by their side.
The woman is wearing a hat and a light cream-colored long sleeved top, a long brown skirt and white heels. She is completely relaxed, even loose and her hands lie on her lap. Her facial expression shows melancholy and disappointment, almost sadness. The man by her side is dressed in a black suit and a black bowler hat. His pants are dark brown, and he has black shoes. He is smoking a pipe or a cigar that is off-panel. Behind them, there is a mirror reflecting their backs. The gentleman shares the same somber facial expression as the woman. They are disheveled, bedraggled, and they look even messy. The deepness in this scene was certainly what caused it to be so spitefully rejected. Yet, it is immensely profound and real.
The way the artwork is framed makes it look like they are being observed by another cafe goer. The lack of centralization and unbalanced layout are a reference to the Orientalism, that starts to influence the painter around this time. This painting was called ugly and depressive by critics, who even said it was disgusting. They also stated that the woman wouldn’t be respectable and even the tables were horrid. Some would say it was an insult to the morals of a Victorian society, where more traditional art critics would expect to find grace, dignity, and grandiosity in the fine arts.
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