A look at alcoholism

A look at alcoholism

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Title: In a cafe, also known as L'Absinthe.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

School : Impressionism

Creation date : 1876

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 92 - Width 68

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 94DE55053 / RF1984

In a cafe, also known as L'Absinthe.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: September 2008

Historical context

The work was probably shown at the second Impressionist exhibition under the title In a coffee shop.

From 1876, some of the Impressionists left the café Guerbois, which was too noisy, to meet at New Athens, Place Pigalle. It is in this context that Degas paints Absinthe, for which he posed two friends, the actress Ellen Andrée and the engraver Marcellin Desboutin.

This painting of mores of Parisian life evokes the problem of alcoholism, illustrated by other artists and writers, notably Zola.

Image Analysis

The work represents a man and a woman on the bench of a cafe, looking dreary, clothes worn, eyes sad. Her shoulders drooping, her gaze absent, has a pale face due to the abuse of absinthe. He looks away from her and his face is ravaged by wine.

A probable image of Parisian bohemia, these characters are striking with the extreme loneliness they express. Solitude accentuated by the composition which is very daring: the characters are placed on a rising oblique, with a fleeting perspective, isolated from the viewer by a series of tables intersecting at right angles. This composition is marked by the Japonism then in vogue, due to the massive arrival of Japanese prints in Europe. Degas draws inspiration from this in his construction of space to accentuate the psychological study of the characters as well as the impression of a snapshot giving the viewer the feeling of stealing a moment of privacy from the two drinkers.

On the tables, a few scattered objects including a glass of absinthe, a 72 ° liqueur made from absinthe, a neurotoxic plant and flavored with mint and anise. This alcohol appeared in the XVIIIe century was first consumed in working-class circles before spreading to the entire population under the Second Empire. It was banned in 1915 because of addiction and the epileptic seizures it caused in heavy users.


Exhibited for the first time in London in 1876, Degas’s work caused a great scandal among the Victorian public. Yet this coffee theme is nothing new: it goes back to Dutch painting in the 17th century.e century. What was shocking at the time was the very treatment of the subject, its exaggerated realism and its triviality. Degas analyzes the scene without any complacency with a penetrating, lucid and critical look at the manners of his time. What brings Absinthe of Zola's naturalism, which was also to influence Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec.

  • alcoholism
  • cafes
  • impressionism
  • naturalism
  • Parisians
  • bohemian (life of)
  • Zola (Emile)
  • scandal
  • Second Empire
  • criticism of morals


Marie-Claude DELAHAYE, LAbsinthe, story of the green fairy, Paris, Berger-Levrault, coll. “Arts and popular traditions”, 1983.COLLECTIF, cat. expo., Degas, Grand Palais, 1988.

To cite this article

Nadine FATTOUH-MALVAUD, "A look at alcoholism"

Video: Waking up from the alcohol dream. Jens Wilms. TEDxBUas


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