Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

Bohemian Paris and Absinthe: A Realistic Portrayal by Edgar Degas

So sorry for the posting hiatus; it was a busy August. This article was inspired by an Impressionist exhibit I recently saw at the Joslyn Museum of Art in Omaha. The exhibition, “Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color,” was featured on my Events page as well. My feelings about Impressionism are varied. Overall, I tend to say that I don’t like it much. I appreciate the Impressionists and impact in art history, particularly their unique ways of exploring the effects of light with color, but if I were to generalize I’d say that I find their subject matter pretty dull. This is a surprise to many people I know, especially my mom, who thinks that the only real art is by people such as Monet who “just paints such pretty pictures!” But there you have it. I think Impressionism is boring. Just my opinion folks.

BUT – there are exceptions to every generalization, and are worth pointing out in many cases. This article features a very intriguing exception by Edgar Degas. Degas is famous for his paintings of ballet dancers. The ballet paintings are once again slightly dull to me, however at the time they were painted they were quite the opposite. Ballet and dancing was considered an erotic and therefore highly scandalous activity, and the fact that Degas painted so many women’s bodies contorting into so many positions was therefore also highly scandalous. Degas, unlike many of his Impressionist homies, was a city guy. His work gives us insight into bohemian Paris and the extracurricular activities of the bourgeois and the working class alike. His unique composition of In a Café is a most interesting example.

Click image to enlarge. Edgar Degas (French), In a Café, 1873, oil on canvas, 92 × 68.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Click image to enlarge. Edgar Degas (French), In a Café, 1873, oil on canvas, 92 × 68.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The location and figures features in this work are all known. The place is the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes. The people are actress/model Ellen André and artist/engraver/popular bohemian Marcellin Desboutin, two characters representing two different bohemian ideals. While at first glance they both look decidedly miserable, studying their expressions further one realizes that they might just be hungover and working on the ol’ Hair of the Dog, as it were. Regardless, these two are without a doubt in a pensive mood.

The absinthe, signature poison of the bohemians and modern Paris, sits untouched in front of Miss André, and she seems to be spacing out over the thought of drinking it. She stares down glassy eyed, her lower lip pouting out and her shoulders slumped. Meanwhile, her partner Desboutin gazes to the left as he chews on his pipe, resting on his elbows and pushing his own drink out in front of André’s absinthe as though no longer interested in it.

While the characters of In a Café are certainly amusing, it is their placement in the composition that is possibly even more significant. Degas paints them on the right side of the canvas, cutting off the tip of Desboutin’s pipe as well as his right arm, knee, and toes under the table. This is an example of the intuitive use of negative space and the effects of emptiness in a composition. Other compositional elements are equally interesting. It’s tough to ignore the way the tops of the tables seem to be floating in midair without legs to hold them up. The foreground arrangement is strange as well with the setting of an unknown patron’s (perhaps it is us as the onlookers) table jutting out and what looks like a newspaper laying haphazardly across the two foremost tables. There is significant light coming from the window, yet there heavy shadows and especially dense silhouettes behind the two figures. This, paired with the realistic harmony between the dark shadows and neutral colors, gives this painting a dreary yet highly expressive feel.

Whether he wanted to or not, Degas served quite a blow to the reputations of both these people upon the release of the painting. Predictably, it was not received entirely well. Miss André was called a slut and the work was regarded a blight on morality. Degas actually had to make a public statement that his friends in the painting were not alcoholics. But today, In a Café is more of an insight into the darker side of modernity.

May I Offer You a Drink, Ol’ Sport?

Absinthe used to be an illicit substance, but is now just another good spirit. Enjoy this drink the old fashioned way, but with a modern twist. Degas would probably have joined you!

The Absinthe Drip

  • Pour absinthe into a cocktail glass half full of ice cubes
  • Place a sugar cube on top of the ice.
  • Very slowly drip club soda onto the sugar cube until it dissolves completely.
  • Give one brief stir and enjoy!


2 comments on “Bohemian Paris and Absinthe: A Realistic Portrayal by Edgar Degas

  1. Schmairia
    October 30, 2013

    Fascinating to learn about the history and context of this painting! I would have never guessed any if the details that you brought to light in this post.

    Would it be safe to say that releasing paintings back in the day was that era’s equivalent of posting pics to Facebook or Twitter?


    • bixbyz10
      October 30, 2013

      Aha Shmairia! You may have something there, and THANK YOU for your insightful comments! It’s definitely an interesting thing to think about. Imagine the censorship images had in the days of Degas versus today. Photographs weren’t really around, and today we not all have cameras and can instantly see our images at the touch of the button. The power of the image in the digital age versus the age before photography… well that’s something a whole series of books could be written about.


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