Les buveurs d'absinthe is widely regarded as being one of Raffaëlli's most important and accomplished paintings. This realist canvas, also known as Les Déclassés, first attracted much attention and favorable critical commentary when it was shown at the sixth Impressionist group exhibition in 1881. Indeed, this picture's presence in that show virtually upstaged the works of those artists who had helped found the new movement and regarded themselves as bona fide Impressionists; their protests against Raffaëlli's participation fueled a growing rift within the group that eventually led to its dissolution in 1886. Les buveurs d'absinthe was shown several more times before 1900 and continued to gather admiring notices. For today's viewers, this picture offers a telling glimpse into a seedy corner of French society during the early years of the Third Republic, dealing with men who have come down in the world and exist on the periphery of modern cosmopolitan life. Raffaëlli's early masterwork --he was thirty-one when he painted it--was in 2008 the subject of a remarkably thorough and illuminating exegesis by Professor Marnin Young in The Art Bulletin, an article that is a model of its kind (op. cit.). This note relies heavily on the information, citations and insights Professor Young included in his text.
Raffaëlli lived in Asnières, an outlying suburb of Paris; in 1880 he told an interviewer for Le Temps: "I am attracted by the strangeness that surrounds all large cities... In Asnières there is a nakedness of earthen embankments, wooden shacks inhabited by extraordinary people, skinny horses, nondescript carriages, and stray dogs. I respond to all that, it answers a need I have for sorrowful charm, a love of strange silhouettes, and, also, a vague consciousness of high philosophy" (quoted in M. Young, op. cit., pp. 243-244). The artist preferred to paint the "extraordinary people" he found there, those who fit lexicographer Pierre Larousse's definition in 1870 of a déclassé: "someone who is outside society, who does not occupy an admitted place within it" (ibid., p. 236). Gustave Geffroy wrote in his 1881 review of Les buveurs d'absinthe:
"[Raffaëlli] has made himself the painter of the Paris banlieue, of the gates of Clichy and of Levallois, of the sad banks of the Seine, of the talus of the fortifications, the dusty quarries, the vacant lots, the enclosures where one throws the detritus of the city, of stripped fields, where thin and sickly grass among the stones and plaster. There live the beggars that poverty devours, suspicious prowlers, rag-pickers, bizarre tradesmen. They go about, across the stones, on the soft earth, eating, working, laying in wait, burnt-faced, long-bearded, eyes always alert, glancing side-ways... Beings whose origins and occupations are impossible to tell walk alongside the boulevard or the embankments, stop along the sidewalk, sit at a table under a leafless arbor... The painter calls them déclassés" (quoted in ibid., pp. 239 and 251).
Alcoholism, as one might expect, was rampant among these down-and-outers, and because it was cheaper than wine (such as the fine "Vins de Bourgogne" advertised on the wall in this picture), absinthe became the intoxicant of choice, as it was among impoverished artists and other bohemians as well. Pernod distilled, refined and marketed absinthe, a spirit of uncertain origin, beginning in 1830. This anise-flavored beverage possessed a high alcohol content; its eerie but natural green color resulted in its popular name, la fée verte, "the green fairy." The perniciously addictive and deleterious effects of absinthe on the drinker were quick-acting, could induce madness and even lead to death. Émile Zola addressed these dangers in his 1877 novel L'Assommoir. Raffaëlli experimented with the drink in preparation for his painting on this subject. He wrote in 1893:
"When I painted one of my best-known paintings, The Absinthe Drinkers, I studied this subject to its depths. I went into the worst neighborhoods to observe the effect of the worst absinthe on the regulars of these hovels out of which this terrible liquor flows. Finally I studied at the hospital for alcoholics. And on myself, one or several times, I observed the effects that one, two, three bad absinthes produced in me. At the first absinthe, the effect is dizzying, at the second one returns to one's senses, surrounded by dizziness and excitations, like a fabulous suppression of the reality of things, the upper part of the body seems no longer to exist except as matter, as weight, and things no longer appear to us except as unreal at the same time that a misdirected excitation imposes itself on the drinker. At the third glass these drunken phenomena increase to a sort of real madness" (quoted in ibid., p. 248).
Daumier had painted a pair of drinkers seated outside a tavern in 1858-1860; the Barbizon painter Daubigny owned this picture and lent it to the 1878 Daumier retrospective (Maison, vol. II, no. 30; fig. 1). Manet painted a solitary absinthe drinker which was rejected when he submitted it to the official Salon of 1859 (Wildenstein, no. 19; fig. 2). It was eventually seen in public during his exhibition at the Paris Exposition in 1867. Raffaëlli's conception of this subject owes something to both earlier examples, but it is best understood in context with his friend Degas's Dans un café (L'Absinthe) (Lemoisne, no. 393; fig. 3), which was shown at the third Impressionist group exhibition in 1877. The young woman with a vacant stare in Degas's picture may be imbibing to relieve weariness or ennui, but as Prof. Young has pointed out, "Absinthe has not ruined her yet. Raffaëlli, on the other hand, zeroes in on absinthe's effects of ruination on the lives of the two men" (ibid.).
Seeking to expand the scope and appeal of the Impressionist exhibitions, Degas wanted to include, from among his protégés, independent figure-oriented painters who treated modern life, the talented Raffaëlli foremost among them. Degas met with much resistance, but got Raffaëlli into the the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, where he showed thirty-three paintings, watercolors and etchings--only Pissarro showed more works, while Monet, Renoir and Sisley were absent. Caillebotte resisted strongly when Raffaëlli was again slated to participate in the next group show the following year, and he stayed away in protest. As the Impressionists had feared, Raffaëlli went on to take center stage in the sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1881, with Les buveurs d'absinthe (under the title Les Déclassés) at the head of his entries, which also included a portrait of a painter, but ironically of a different, less exalted sort than Raffaëlli's serious-minded colleagues (fig. 4). The critic Albert Wolff, who had not been well-disposed toward the Impressionists, advised his readers to buy Raffaëlli while his work was still inexpensive. The writers with Naturalist tendencies singled out the drinkers and described them at length in their reviews. Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote in L'art moderne:
"Among the mass of exhibitors in our time, M. Raffaëlli is one of the rare who will remain; he will stand out from the art of the century He describes the sad land of the déclassés: he shows them to us, seated in front of glasses of absinthe, at a cabaret under a bower where, climbing up, thin vines stripped of leaves twist, with their depraved paraphernalia of clothes in rags and boots in shreds, with their black hats who threads have gone brown and whose cardboard has warped, with their unkempt beards, their hollow eyes, their enlarged and seemingly watery pupils, head in hand or rolling cigarettes. In this picture, a movement of bony wrist on a pinch of tobacco held in its paper says a great deal about daily habits, about the miseries endlessly reborn from an inflexible life" (quoted in ibid., p. 242).
Viewers quickly picked up on the contrasts between Raffaëlli's intent in this picture and the outward appearance and content of Impressionist paintings generally. The critic for the newspaper Le Petit Parisien wrote, "M. Raffaëlli seems to us to differ noticeably from the artists known as Impressionists: he paints with an extreme meticulousness, leaves out no detail, finishes, 'licks,' brings to perfection," while the reviewer for the journal L'Art commented that Raffaëlli, "does not content himself with the approximate. He pursues to the very end what he undertakes" (quoted in ibid., pp. 237 and 238). Prof. Young has called attention to what he calls the element of "duration" in Raffaëlli's realist paintings, the suggestion that the apparent image incorporates within it multiple and co-existing dimensions of significance. He wrote: "Raffaëlli's painting thus depicted a location, an activity, and a social type--the banlieue, drinking and the déclassés--which, when mixed together, offered a volatile cocktail to its original audience. In 1881, these three subjects were merged, producing greater political resonance, in and through a pictorial aesthetics of duration, one deliberately in tension with the Impressionist mode of pictorial instantaneity" (ibid., p. 236).
The accelerating evolution of modern society, manifest in this painting as the railway station and crossing signal at upper left, has left behind these two downcast and listless men, who eke out their marginal, pre-modern lives in unchanging day-to-day subsistence. They exist outside time--there is nothing they can or even want to look forward to, except the next glass, the next cigarette, or the change in fortune that is unlikely to occur. Prof. Young nevertheless suggests, as Raffaëlli appeared to maintain, that these slackers embody a vestigial freedom, or at least a strain of deeply resistant non-conformity that defies all accepted social expectations and norms. "Raffaëlli's déclassés, like the ragpickers, are free to work 'when they wish', to move about Paris as they will... Was Les déclassés understood as a painting of decadent resignation or of incipient revolt?... Or did Raffaëlli's déclassés represent, more radically, the final holdouts against what Karl Marx called the "victory of industry over heroic indolence?" (pp. 253 and 254). The artist himself took a changing view of his drinkers, and in 1877 remarked, "I see them now as vanquished, more than as in revolt" (quoted in ibid. p. 255).
(fig. 1) Honoré Daumier, Les Buveurs, circa 1858-1860. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 2) Edouard Manet, Le buveur d'absinthe, 1858-1859. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Dans un café (L'Absinthe), 1875-1876. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 4) Jean-François Raffaëlli, Bonhomme venant de peindre sa barrière, 1880-1881. Sold, Christie's New York, 5-6 May 1998, lot 136.