This is Degas’ most famous scene of café life. Shown in London in 1893, it created a scandal, the Victorian public being unprepared for so disenchanted a picture of Parisian existence. But these people are not really degenerates of the period; the artist had posed two of his friends, the woman a well-known actress ant the man a distinguished etcher, in a spot much frequented by artists of the day.
The design is one of Degas’ most brilliant inventions. From Japanese art he had learned this zigzag arrangement of lines which, beginning at the bottom of the canvas, is carried swiftly back by the flat table tops. The figures are placed to the right of the center and sharply cut by the frame. Absinthe is not, as the outraged Puritans of the day pretended, a study in alcoholism, but an Impressionist “slice of life”, drawn with extraordinary sensitivity and painted with a deft, incisive touch.