Exercise: Depicting Everyday Life

The most recognisable Impressionist images are probably Monet’s beautiful landscapes or garden scenes but these don’t say much about city life. I have chosen instead Renoirs “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” and Degas “L’Absinthe”.

degas l'absinthe

Degas, In a Café, also called Absinthe, 1873, Oil on canvas 92 x 68.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay

Degas version of city life is very different from Renoir’s. The Impressionist group normally depicted “a sunny, friendly, convivial world in which everyone enjoys robust good health and relaxes out of doors during a perpetual midsummers weekend” (1). They did this in an unemotional, purely observational manner with an aim to capture momentary impressions and the natural effects of light. Degas, however,  preferred to paint the seedier night life of the cafe’s and bars or the backstage scenes of ballet dancers practising awkward stretches. Although the subject matter may be different, the intention to convey a realistic depiction of what they saw before them was the same and he became one of the most truthful painters of modern life

“L’Absinthe” is a depiction of sadness and isolation in spite of the close proximity of the two subjects. They appear not to know each other although perhaps they are alone  in their misery. Degas has depicted this hopelessness not only in the woman’s expression but in her slumped posture and unladylike position of her legs. She looks exhausted but perhaps this is more than tiredness: she is shown with a glass of Absinthe, the hallucinogenic alcoholic drink which was later banned because of it’s harmful effects.

Unlike the other Impressionists, Degas chose to work in his studio rather than in open air. Despite this, he manages to convey the impression of a snapshot. This effect is due to the cropping of the tables and the gentleman’s leg and arm which may have been inspired by Japanese prints which were very popular at the time (2). This is further emphasised by the woman’s posture: she seems unaware that someone is viewing her, let alone painting her. The off centre positioning of the people, with the seemingly useless space on the left and in the foreground adds to the effect of drunkenness (2).

Degas in actual fact, spent a lot of time considering compositions and this seemingly random and informal arrangement was carefully thought out. He said on this subject: “A painting is an artificial work existing outside nature and it requires as much cunning as the perpetration of a crime” (1). He used his friends, the actress Ellen André and fellow artist Marcellin Desboutin as models for the characters (2) although this backfired for them and Degas had to publicly state that they were not alcoholics.

This painting reminds me of Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergere”. The strong shadows may be reflections in a mirror behind the sitters and is reminiscent of the mirror in “Folies”. The scenes create the same glimpse of an unfortunate person’s life in the 19th century. Both women seem to contemplate their surroundings and their position in life and are not happy with their lot. We don’t know what the Absinthe drinker does to make money, indeed, she seems quite grandly dressed but it is implied that she is addicted to a destructive substance and her posture indicates she is aware of her predicament. In the same way, the barmaid is outwardly well-to-do but it is implied that her melancholy is associated with her prostitution .

Certainly “L’Absinthe” is not an attractive subject but it employs all of the “instantaneity” of a Monet landscape and it tells a particular story of contemporary life in Paris in the 1870s complete with warts and all.

renoir luncheon boating

Renoir – The Luncheon at the Boating Party, 1881, Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 173cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

In contrast, there are no warts in Renoir’s jovial scene of middle class delight. This painting was completed shortly before he began to doubt the Impressionist style and reverted to the more traditional methods (1). “The Luncheon at the Boating Party” still retains his interest in depicting the effects of light and weather with his recognisable technique of short brush stokes and dappled blue shadows. In this paintings he has captured the effect of the light filtering through a canvas awning on the clothes of the assembled group. They are a young and carefree bunch, chatting and enjoying society life in the warmth of summer.

Boats on the shimmering water can be glimpsed through the trees and bushes in the top left corner, giving the viewer a clue about what these people have been doing (the boating hats and the title of course, inform us further). All of the individuals in the painting are actually Renoir’s friends (4). One of them, Baron Raoul Barbier (the man in the brown bowler hat with his back to us) helped Renoir to organize everyone within the scene (3). The woman  in the centre, shown drinking from a glass, is the same actress Degas used for his model in “L’Absinthe”.  The two very different versions of this woman: a depressed alcoholic sitting staring into space, and the relaxed, happy, colourful girl enjoying company, demonstrate how at least one of the artists (likely Degas) has constructed their image to show a specific account of society.

The crowd are seen in the restaurant Maison Fournaise overlooking the Seine, a popular place for the Parisian society to gather at the time. The restaurant was known for its diverse clientèle ranging from shop staff, to businessmen, to the members of high class (4). Thus Renoir has chosen to show the modern Parisian society. This was a perhaps a scene common to his group of friends and it conveys all of the spontaneity of a snapshot. However a great deal of reworking was done to the picture over many months. Despite this it still retains the vibrancy and delicacy of a painting with very little alterations.

In both of these paintings, the artists have shown a piece of contemporary life. At first, it seems they couldn’t be more different, but perhaps they both show their own version of the pleasure-seeking attitude of the time. Renoir’s jovial version was acceptable but Degas’ unsentimental antithesis was rejected by the establishment. I know who’s reality I would rather be in.

1. Honour H and Fleming J (2009) A World History of Art. 7th Edition, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London

2. The Musee d’Orsay Website – http://www.musee-orsay.fr/index.php?id=851&L=1&tx_commentaire_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=2234, 07/03/14

3. Cumming, R. (2000) Annotated Art: The World’s Greatest Paintings Explored and Explained. 2nd Edition, Covent Garden Books: London

4. The Philips Collection Website – http://www.phillipscollection.org/collection/boating-party/, 07/03/14


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