Manet’s Absinthe Drinker (1858-9)

Edouard Manet's Absinthe Drinker (left), the first painting he submitted to the Paris Salon, is a heroic-sized canvas of an alcoholic and has almost always been described literally, as a scene of modern Paris. Low-life had never been depicted on such a large scale before so the jury for the Paris Salon promptly rejected it. There was, however, one important vote in its favor, rarely mentioned, from the elderly Delacroix. It was the only vote in its favor. Delacroix, as a great master himself, knew that the absinthe drinker in front of him, rather too elegant for real low-life, was not what he seemed. Manet's street bum was dressed as Raphael...and as Delacroix too.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, Absinthe Drinker (1858-9)

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The original painting that Delacroix and other members of the jury saw was not as large as it is today and the figure was seated. Some years later Manet lengthened the picture by extending the figure below the knees. We can get some idea of what it once looked like - and what the jury saw - from a caricature of it that appeared in the newspapers.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Randon, Caricature of Manet's Absinthe Drinker (1859)

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What Delacroix would have noted, but no-one else has, is that the seated figure of Manet's absinthe drinker is based on an engraved portrait of Raphael sitting in his studio by an engraver within Raphael's circle, Marcantonio Raimondi. Delacroix would have known it well.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Raimondi, Portrait of Raphael (c.1510-20)

Right: Randon, Caricature of Manet's Absinthe Drinker (18

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The similarities are obvious: their cloaks wrapped around their shoulders, the bare bench emerging from a blank wall, the curved shadow on the wall to the left of them and Raphael's pots of paint on the ledge turned into a glass of absinthe. Nor is the glass what it seems. Manet is known for his visual puns and there is one in the glass.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Raimondi, Portrait of Raphael (c.1510-20)

Right: Manet, Absinthe Drinker (1858-9)

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The reflection resembles the tip of a paintbrush so the two together, glass and reflection, are on the metamorphic level a brush dipped in green paint. Green, furthermore, is not only the color of absinthe but of fertility and creativity too.  

Delacroix also understood the top hat. In 1830 he had drawn his self-portrait wearing an out-of-place top hat in one his earliest masterpieces, Liberty Leading the People, a painting also about art not life. In time the top hat became associated with the elegant Manet as well. The absinthe drinker, we can now see, is "Raphael",  "Delactroix" and "Manet", a composite great master using an alcoholic intoxicant to fuel his own imaginative powers.2

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Manet's Absinthe Drinker
Bottom: Delacroix, Detail of a self-portrait in Liberty Leading the People (1830)

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Notes:

1. Picasso later used the same Marcantonio Raimondi print early in his career as well. See note on EPPH's blog, "Picasso's Eyeball".

2. The absinthe drinker represents a fourth master too, Diego Velazquez, as I will show elsewhere.

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Original Publication Date: 25 Nov 2010
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