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Edgar Degas - The Absinthe

by Laura Gerstmann

In a Parisian café, "La Nouvelle Athènes" - meeting place of modern artists and intellectual center of the Bohème - two people meet seemingly by chance. Silently, they enjoy a drink and let their gaze drift into the void.

The people depicted are friends Degas. Ellen André and Marcellin Desboutin: she is a successful French actress, he a painter, graphic artist and writer. Thus, the first assumption of a chance meeting becomes invalid, since Degas conceived the scene in the studio. Here he depicts a couple to whom everyday life has become a habit. The smooth, cold surface of the tables, the dark shadows of the heads, and the fact that the young lady is sitting between two tables and at none properly represent the prevailing lack of relationship. What one sees here is the embodiment of modern man, for whom the café is no longer a place of adventure. 

The lack of togetherness is completed by the different drinks. Ellen indulges in a glass of absinthe here. Absinthe, known as the infamous Parisian artist's drug at the end of the 19th century, was popular not only for its high alcohol content but also for the intoxicating effect of the thujone it contained. Artists liked to use it to fuel their creativity a little. 

The "Green Fairy", as absinthe is often called, as the only way to escape the momentary stupor? Or already a drink that has become a habit, which through its poison, expresses the decay of the mind here?

All in all, with this picture Degas makes his contribution to the present themes - zeitgeist, social problems, marital conflict, emptiness of existence, temptation to suicide - of the 19th century and thus created one of his most famous pictures.  

Edgar Degas - The Absinthe

Oil on canvas, 1875/76, 92 x 68.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay in Paris


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