The setting for the painting is the Café de la Nouvelle. A place commonly frequented by the likes of Édouard Manet and Degas, by some critics and literary men and painters, as well as, an interested observer from across the English Channel a young George Moore.
The painting employs Degas favorite implement of setting the figure off center with an expanse of foreground. The diagonal entrance to the scene of the isolated couple reflects Degas's interest in photography and photographic composition and the use of arrangement with the dark but harmoniously related tones of color and shadow make the painting both unique and forceful. There is no use of chiaroscuro to show depth; cropping at edges; causing the space to recede on a slant. Here is the original application of Degas in using styling from Japanese prints and art resulting in a very flat composition.
The models for this café couple were Degas' two friends, copper engraver Marcellin Desboutin (1823-1902) and actress Ellen Andrée. Desboutin was a popular figure among the Impressionist movement and seems to have led the move of those concerned with the arts from their previous rendezvous, the Café Guerbois, to the Nouvelle-Athènes. Although there is no contact between them, the woman stares dully before her, her arms slack at her sides, not seemingly unaware of the glass of absinthe that provides the title for the painting. While the man turns from the woman, looking beyond to the right border of the painting. The picture is voyeuristic as Degas typically would have us participate so in the scene. It is plainly seen that the two figures, who look like they belong in an Émile Zola novel L'Assommoir are habitués of the café. They have come to drink (her absinthe is deadly) and to find some solace for their mutual loneliness and despair. Art historians note that the scene was "retained in Degas's memory . . . in a pensive mood." He did not seek to inspire a moral, flatter them or make a `pretty picture' an idea he regarded with horror-- although his work is impressionistic Degas was also very decidedly a realist.
George Moore in trying to defend Degas was as superficial as any. `What a slut!' he had to say of poor Ellen Andrée and added, `the tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson', a remark for which he had later the grace to apologize.
Thought to depict his friends as monsters of dissipation and degradation in order to draw a moral lesson.........Victorians as Sir William Blake Richmond and Walter Crane when shown L'absinthe in London in 1893 reacted to the work as the persons represented were considered to be shockingly degraded and by a somewhat rather involved piece of reasoning the picture itself was regarded as a blow to morality. It might be observed, incidentally, that the man in the picture --a close friend of Degas--Desboutin was drinking nothing stronger than black coffee! Victorian England had always entertained a deep suspicion regarding art in France since the early days of the Barbizon School and the need to find a moral lesson at all costs was so very typical of the era.
While the use of wormwood can be dated as far back as 1550 B.C., it became the rage in France starting about 1850. Its use took hold in the intellectual and artistic communities and many famous people, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Picasso, and Degas, drank absinthe. At the time it was considered to stimulate creativity and act as an aphrodisiac.
The most re known drinker of absinthe was Vincent Van Gogh. Historians relate that his depression, psychotic behavior and suicide coincided with his chronic use of the drink. Van Gogh suffered from acute intermittent porphyria. The symptoms of this genetic disorder include "attacks of abdominal pain, anxiety, hysteria, delirium, phobias, psychosis, organic disorders, agitation, depression, and altered consciousness from tiredness to coma." It has been conjectured that the drinking of absinthe may have triggered these attacks.
Prominent absinthe users include:
Visual artworks inspired by absinthe include: