As we all recover from the season of excess and indulgence, numerous New Year’s resolutions to reduce our alcohol intake will have no doubt been made (and will no doubt be broken just as swiftly). If your return to work has hit you with a bang and you’re on the hunt for something to renew your conviction to stay off the hard stuff, few oil paintings have as sobering an effect upon the viewer as Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe. Sometimes known in English as The Absinthe Drinker or Glass Of Absinthe, the 32 inch by 27 inch oil on canvas artwork was created by Degas between 1875 and 1876, and is now part of the permanent collection at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

The painting depicts two figures, a man on the right and a woman in the centre, who are seated at a table of a 19th Century Parisian café. The man wears a scruffy hat and suit, smokes a pipe and stares off to the right of the painting, ignoring both his partner and his coffee on the table before him. The female figure is dressed like a prostitute and she stares vacantly downwards towards the floor with a glass filled with absinthe sitting in front of her. The interpretation of Degas’ slightly depressing work is that it is a representation of the increasing social isolation of individuals during a time of rapid economic and industrial expansion in Paris.

Despite the emotional distance and lack of familiarity with which Degas treats the subjects of the painting, both were well known to him. The lady is Ellen Andrée, a famous Parisian actress in the 1870s, and the man is Marcellin Desboutin who was a bohemian painter and printmaker. The café in which the scene is set is the Café De La Nouvelle-Athénes in Place Pigalle in Paris where Impressionists like Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh and Degas would come to meet.

When the painting was first exhibited in 1876 it was considered a critical failure, with many referring to the work as ‘ugly’ and even ‘disgusting’. This was of course still in the early years of the Impressionist movement when their revolutionary painting style was still considered to be unfashionable by the mainstream art ‘media’, and so the painting was placed in storage since no one seemed to take much pleasure in looking at it. Degas pulled it out of the cupboard in 1892 when it was exhibited for a second time, and was met with such a hostile response that it was literally booed off the easel. Perhaps hoping to escape the cruelty of the French critics, Degas exhibited the work in England (not exactly renowned for having a forgiving media) in 1893 where the work once again seemed to be at the centre of a storm of controversy.

It was described as ‘uncouth’, ‘degrading’ and was viewed not as a work of art, but rather as a cautionary moral lesson against the dangers of drinking. The Irish art critic George Moore generously said of the woman in painting, “what a whore!” adding, “the tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson”. Moore later recanted this verdict saying, “The picture is merely a work of art, and has nothing to do with drink or sociology.”

The French regarded the work as ugly and the British regarded it as a didactic work, but it is now considered to be one of Degas’ most celebrated paintings, inspired by Japanese art compositions as much it is was inspired by 19th Century Parisian life.