The Absinthe Drinker (L'Absinthe) by Degas was painted between 1875 and 1876, represents the actress Ellen Andree and the engraver Marcellin Desboutin sitting in the Café de la Nouvelle-Athenes, the place where the Impressionists had begun to meet after the early period of the Café Guerbois. The American actress was a friend of Manet, who also portrayed her in a painting of 1878 (Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur), as he did Desboutin (1875, Museu de Sao Paulo). According to the actress's own account, the two of them actually posed in front of a glass of absinthe, a drink that was viewed with particular disfavor by the right-minded of the time, who held it responsible for alcoholism in the working class.
The scene is supposed to represent a prostitute and her pimp, perhaps at dawn after a night of drinking, in an atmosphere that is not very different from that of Zola's novels. It certainly lays bare the lack of communication between the two figures, who are not looking at one another but remain isolated in separate worlds.
The composition is carefully studied and unusual: looking at the picture we get the impression we are standing next to the tables. It is not just the adoption of a viewpoint at close range and to one side that draws us into the scene, but also the attitude of the man who is located at the edge of the canvas and staring out of it, thereby involving us directly in the representation.
The picture was painted in 1876 and may have been shown at the second Impressionist exhibition, held the same year, and at the exhibition in London in 1893, where it was heavily criticized for glorifying the more negative aspects of the artist's life, the so-called vie bohemienne.
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