Norms do… Degas’ L’Absinthe
I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the la fée verte . That is to say, I’ve always been fascinated by the debauched charm of that wonderful peppermint green drink which was and still is (in its full potent form) an illegal alcoholic substance: Absinthe. For absinthe has long been the chaperone of artistic legend, as all the most romantic illusions of the impoverished, desperate, inebriated artist are indubitably accompanied by a bottle of the green stuff, or a glass of its milky diluted counterpart. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, the green faced cancan dancers of Toulouse Lautrec’s underworld masterpieces, and the dissolute tale of a spiral into poverty and lascivious living on the hillsides of Montmartre in Zola’s L’Assomoir all centre around the mirky hallucinogenic potency of this green-eyed alcoholic monster. It is the very essence of bohemian artistic Paris, and it’s association has pervaded art and its cultural progeniture for decades. One of the most prominent sources of the liquor’s legendary quality is the sensational painting L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas. I first saw the painting in London, when it was exhibited at Tate Britain’s superb exhibition Degas, Sickert and Toulouse Lautrec in 2005-6. I was instantly struck by the simple solitude of the female figure, caught in a moment of absentmindedness and melancholia, appearing quite isolated despite the figure sat to her left, he looking away in his own depressive daydream. I’ve remembered the painting ever since and therefore I was so excited to make its acquaintance once again upon visiting the Musée d’Orsay the other week that I decided I had to turn it into a Norm painting. And so, when the Norms do Degas, it looks something like this…
Degas’ original painting, on the other hand, looks like this…
In interpreting the scene for the Norm genre, I had to guess at some of Degas’ undefined brushstrokes, particularly when it came to the central character’s dress and the table in the immediate foreground. He appears to paint what looks like a newspaper stood at an odd angle. The objects on the table look like an ash tray and some kind of whip or poker. Unable to distinguish the latter, or find any commentary shedding light on what it is, I opted to paint a newspaper (at less of a strange angle) (but The Daily Norm – of course) and an ashtray. Voila!
Degas’ original has a chequered history. The painting was exhibited at the third Impressionist exhibition where is was purchased by Captain Henry Hill. He exhibited it at the Brighton Art Gallery’s Third Annual Winter Exhibition of Modern Pictures where it provoked nothing short of outrage from a disgusted audience. The central figure in the painting, who in reality was actress Ellen Andrée, was referred to by the Brighton Gazette as a “sticky-looking grisette”, while the gentleman, Marcellin Desboutin, was described as “a brutal, sensual-looking French workman”. Together, the overall composition of the painting was said to have “disgusting novelty”. When the painting appeared at auction in Christies 14 years later, public opinion had not changed, and reports recall how the audience “hissed” at the painting, an expression of disapproval which was thought to be relatively unheard of amongst polite society in an auction house at the time. The response was the jerk reaction of an audience who would have viewed an absinthe drinker rather as a crack cocaine addict would be viewed today: depraved, out of control, and inappropriate for viewing by the art going public. It was also testament to the general suspicion of Victorian England to their French counterparts over the Channel.
Thankfully the painting is now appreciated for the masterpiece it truly is, and the work looks stunning in the fresh new hanging environment of the d’Orsay. It is a striking image of desolation and disenfranchisement amongst the French working classes at the end of the 19th Century. The angle of the painting, and the positioning of the couple off centre suggests that it is part of a much larger cafe scene, but this sectionality serves to emphasise the dislocated isolation of the couple. Despite the two figures sitting so close to one another, there appears to be no emotional connection between them. Physically and mentally they are lost in their own worlds, and it is this melancholic introspection which so fascinates and captivates the modern-day audience.
Understandably the painting has been an inspiration to subsequent artists beyond, of course, myself. In the early 1900s, Picasso painted a series of absinthe drinkers as part of his haunting blue period, paintings whose stirring sentimentality is augmented in the use of cold, inhospitable blues. In the same way as Degas has used the absinthe drinking-motive to evoke an image of great solitude and sadness, Picasso’s figures appear withdrawn, isolated and deep in thought. The artist Viktor Oliva painted a similar scene of a lone absinthe drinker in an empty cafe, while before Degas painted his work, Manet himself painted an absinthe drinker portrayed as more of an alert but shady dandy. Also adept at painting melancholy figures, preoccupied and absorbed in their own introspection, are the incredibly tense and emotive works of American artist, Edward Hopper. I’ve included two examples of his works below, both of which clearly reflect the mood of Degas’ uncompromising and undisputed masterpiece.
- Paris Part III: The Musée d’Orsay rehang and, finally, some macaroons (normsonline.wordpress.com)
- Le Fèe Verte (musingbymoonlight.com)