Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas met for the first time circa 1861–62, fittingly in the Louvre, while they were both copying Velázquez’s Portrait of the Infanta Margarita Theresa (1659) on etching plates. They became friends for life. While Degas drew and painted several portraits of the slightly older artist, Manet never reciprocated; yet for his entire life he kept a photograph of Degas in a personal album among images of his own family. After Manet’s death, Degas bought up a great number of his late friend’s works and eventually shepherded them into museums. Among many commonalities, they both painted notorious pictures of absinthe drinkers.
The Manet–Degas show currently at the Metropolitan Museum features Degas’ well-known masterpiece In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875–76), on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. (A full review of the exhibition by James Panero can be found in the November 2023 issue of The New Criterion.) But missing from the Met’s exhibition is Édouard Manet’s famous picture The Absinthe Drinker (1859), which remains in the Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Painted when Manet was just twenty-six, this life-size picture depicts a top-hatted bum with a Baudelairean flair. Instead of delivering a classical Bacchus hoisting a golden goblet, Manet portrayed a shabby rag-picker named Collardet, who begged daily in front of the Louvre. Beside him sits a gleaming glass of absinthe, while a discarded bottle lies at his feet. There is a smug, high-as-a-kite expression on this clochard’s face. You gotta problem with that, monsieur? Ta gueule! Whether or not he intended The Absinthe Drinker as a calculated affront, Manet felt strongly that an artist should paint real people, not just models in classical robes.
A few days before submitting the picture to the Salon of 1859, Manet invited his former teacher, the great classicist Thomas Couture, to visit his studio. As the older artist stared at the picture, his face reddened. “An absinthe drinker!” he snorted. “And they paint abominations like that! My poor friend, you are the absinthe drinker! It is you who have lost your moral faculty.” When Couture left the studio with barely a goodbye, both knew their already strained relationship was over.
The controversy grew. Manet’s picture shocked the selection committee of the Paris Salon in 1859, and they rejected it. Couture, naturally, had voted against it, but Manet was heartened to learn that Eugène Delacroix had cast a vote in his favor. The rejection had not surprised Manet, but it angered him. It was the first of many rebukes his art received from the powers that be and the public.
Although the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire knew the younger Manet well enough to borrow money from him, he was surprisingly lukewarm about Manet’s art, considering the work crude and inelegant. He once wrote to Manet, calling him “the leading painter of the decrepitude.” Yet after the Salon scandal, Baudelaire comforted him by saying, “La conclusion, c’est qu’il faut être soi-même.” (The conclusion is that you must be yourself.)
As early as 1843, Baudelaire had urged young painters to paint the urban life around them, not just classical nudes in the Academy style:
The painter, the true painter, will be he who can extract from present-day life its epic quality, and make us see and understand, through color and line, how great and poetic we are in our cravats and patent leather boots.
In setting the tone for what we might call Paris’s “absinthe era,” Baudelaire was both a prophet and victim. As Christopher Isherwood later wrote, “Paris taught him his vices, absinthe and opium, and the extravagant dandyism of his early manhood which involved him in debt for the rest of his life.” Baudelaire was the first of the nineteenth-century poets to create art from the disorder of modern life. “You gave me mud and I gave you gold,” he once wrote of Paris. His collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal was the personal study of evil and addiction by a man who understood the world’s craving for sensation—at the expense of spirituality—as the supreme characteristic of his time. When the book appeared in 1857, he was fined for obscenity by the same court that had condemned Flaubert’s scandalous masterpiece Madame Bovary (1856).
For Baudelaire, everything in the nineteenth century was a failure except the beauty of its art, in which even evil could be alchemized into good. Addictive consumption, in turn, played a key role in that alchemical process. Baudelaire put it most succinctly in his prose poem “Enivrez-vous,” published posthumously in 1869:
One must be drunk always. . . . If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that breaks your shoulders and bows you to the earth, you must intoxicate yourself unceasingly.
But with what? With wine, poetry, or with virtue, your choice. But intoxicate yourself.
He was speaking from experience. In 1860, painfully syphilitic, he absorbed laudanum and drank absinthe while writing Les Paradis artificiels to dull the vertigo and pain caused by the disease. “Now I suffer continually from vertigo,” as he put it in January 1862; “I have felt the wing of madness pass over me.” He had also dyed his hair green.
Baudelaire’s early suspicion that he had been born under a dark star seemed to be fulfilling itself. He considered becoming a monk but instead went to Belgium. “One becomes a Belgian through having sinned,” he quipped. “A Belgian is his own hell.” While walking to a church one day with the artist Félicien Rops, Baudelaire collapsed. Returning to Paris, he died in 1867 at the age of forty-six. The funeral was held in Montparnasse. Only sixty people showed up to honor the greatest poet France has ever created, but one of the mourners was Manet. Later, the journalist Victor Noir wrote, “in his last moments, his best friend was M. Manet; it was because the two natures understood each other so well.”
Around this time a young Parisian author and playwright, Henri Balesta, wrote a treatise Absinthe et Absintheurs (1860), which was probably (according to the pharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel) the first known book to record the socialization of absinthe abuse. Gradually, an anti-alcohol movement was growing in France as well as England.
Thirty years later, that movement had not abated. Degas’ In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) caused a scandal when exhibited in Brighton, England, in 1893. Originally titled A Sketch of a Paris Café, it was harshly attacked by prudish English critics. “What a slut!” commented George Moore, an Irish man of letters (whom, coincidentally, Manet painted three times); “The tale is not a pleasant one, but is a lesson.” The Brighton Gazette critic called it
The perfection of ugliness . . . . The color is as repulsive as the figures; a brutal sensual-looking French workman and a sickly-looking grisette; a most unlovely couple. The very novelty of the subject arrests attention. What there is to admire in it, is the skill of the artist, not the subject itself.
The setting for the picture is a well-known café, La Nouvelle-Athènes. The model for the “brutal” workman was actually Marcellin Desboutin, a respected painter and engraver who (like Manet and Degas) had been born to a well-off bourgeois family, only to give up the study of law for café life. For years Desboutin had lived in an immense villa near Florence, trying to write plays until he ran out of money. Returning to Paris, he was gratified to see the debut of his play Maurice de Saxe at La Comédie-Française, but alas, it was abruptly shut down by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (Manet thought enough of Desboutin to paint a full-length standing portrait of him in 1875; Desboutin is portrayed filling his pipe with tobacco while behind him a shaggy white dog drinks from a water glass.)
The female model in Degas’ painting was the British actress Ellen Andrée, who hardly ever drank absinthe and lived a long happy life. Over forty years later, in 1921, she decided to set the record straight. Interviewed by the critic Félix Fénéon at the Théâtre Édouard VII in Paris, she recalled sitting for the painter:
My glass was filled with absinthe. Desboutin had something innocuous in his . . . and we looked like two idiots. I didn’t look bad at the time, I can say that today; I had an air about me that your Impressionists thought “quite modern,” I had chic and I could hold a pose as they wanted me to . . . But Degas—didn’t he slaughter me!
So why the blistering Anglo furor over absinthe, which was hardly consumed in England at all? One explanation may have been the publication in 1890 of Marie Corelli’s best-selling novel Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, which fingered absinthe as a devilish potion:
The morbidness of the modern French mind is well-known and universally admitted, even to the French themselves; the open atheism, heartlessness, flippancy, and flagrant immorality of the whole modern school of thought is unquestioned. . . . There are, no doubt, many causes for the wretchedly low standard of moral responsibility and fine feeling displayed by Parisians of today—but I do not hesitate to say that one of those causes is undoubtedly the reckless Absinthe-mania, which pervades all classes, rich and poor alike.
The narrator of the Corelli novel is a naive, well-bred young banker named Gaston Beauvais, who is turned on to absinthe by a decadent artist named Gessonex in a Paris café; he immediately becomes addicted to the Green Fairy. Though he manages to get his lovely bride-to-be Pauline to the altar, the deranged Gaston then falsely claims that his fiancée has become the mistress of an old family friend, Silvion, a saintly fellow studying to become a priest. Pauline flees in shame, and her father, the count, dies of a sudden heart attack. One night Gaston finds the innocent Silvion, now a priest in cassock, standing on a bridge over the Seine, sadly watching the moonlight on the water. Gaston strangles him with the cords of his priestly robe, then tosses him into the river. When the body is eventually retrieved and displayed in the morgue, the artist Gessonex ghoulishly marvels at the colors in the putrefying face of the dead man. He later joins Gaston in a café where, drinking absinthe, they both read a scathing review of the artist’s latest exhibition. Gessonex abruptly stands and fires a bullet into his brain. The book ends with Gaston again drinking absinthe in a café, as he cynically reflects:
And here I am, an absintheur in the City of Absinthe, and glory is neither for me, nor for thee Paris, thou frivolous, lovely, godless, lascivious dominion of Sin! Godless!
Mon dieu. Oscar Wilde, from his cell in Reading Gaol, commented on Corelli’s writing style with his usual acerbic wit: “Now don’t think I have anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here!”
In his pre-Polynesian days, Paul Gauguin spent his time drinking absinthe in the same café.
Many other artists and writers drank absinthe. The Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau once remarked of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s genius, “His paintings were entirely painted in absinthe.” Indeed, alcoholism sent Toulouse-Lautrec to an asylum and hastened his demise. Lautrec drew a pastel of his pal Vincent van Gogh contemplating a glass of absinthe in a Parisian café in 1887, before the troubled Dutchman moved south to Arles, where he shared a house with Paul Gauguin. There Van Gogh drank heavily and painted a local hangout, the Café de l’Alcazar, in yellowish-green tones, as if the intoxicated inhabitants and the billiards table were submerged in a giant aquarium filled with absinthe. In his pre-Polynesian days, Paul Gauguin spent his time drinking absinthe in the same café, and he painted a portrait of the proprietress seated with an absinthe glass in front of her.
By the time Picasso began painting absinthe drinkers in 1900, the Green Fairy’s reputation had so declined that it was openly called “bottled madness.” Not a heavy drinker himself, Picasso was fascinated by the louche cafés in Barcelona and Paris, and his Blue Period canvases (informed by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec) are filled with absinthe drinkers. The Green Fairy spilled over into his Cubist still lifes of 1912–14, which featured fractured glasses and even bottles bearing the Pernod label.
By 1910, a quarter of the 129 million liters of alcohol consumed annually by Frenchmen was absinthe. Of course, the wine industry was threatened by this growing desire for “industrial spirits.” The Pernod Company was the primary producer, but there were dozens of distilleries offering variations of the ambrosial concoction. The Green Fairy had become the Green Curse. Absinthe was suddenly banned in France as a war measure in 1915. Overnight, absinthe disappeared from the café tables of Paris and the twentieth century began.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 4, on page 4
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