The 'Philistine' and the New Art Critic: a new perspective on the debate about Degas's L'Absinthe of 1893.

Author:Morse-Jones, Kimberley

It is amusing to see with what constant recurrence the epidemic of discussion on the subject of art criticism breaks out every, now and again. Opinion on this matter is like a spring that overflows at irregular intervals. And that makes up for long periods of a quiescence by occasional displays of violent energy. There is no fore-telling when the outburst may come, nor how long it may continue; it begins as a rule with hardly a warning, and all at once drowns the world with a muddy torrent, that carries along all sorts of incongruous mental wreckage, and intellectual odds and ends. Yet these alarming manifestations are only so much force wasted. It is surely obvious that, so long as the artist who possesses and uses technical knowledge is confronted with a public that neither has nor desires anything of the sort, the critic must find occupation--as a go-between. This indeed, however it may be disguised, is the real mission of all who write about Art. Alfred Lys Baldry (1)

In the winter of 1893 Edgar Degas's L'Absinthe (Pl 1) was exhibited at the Grafton Gallery in London. The debate that transpired as a result constituted what Alfred Thornton, an art student in the 1890s, deemed 'the greatest aesthetic battle waged in England'. (2) It has been suggested that the apparently vulgar content of the painting accounted for the furore that resulted. Subsequently, most discussions concerning the reception of L'Absinthe have concentrated on either one or both of the following points: how it reflects Victorians' anxiety about the perceived degeneration of modern society, and/or how it indicates Victorians' wariness of foreign art, mainly French, which was linked to degeneracy. (3) As valid as these deliberations are, they circumvent the artistic issues that lie at the heart of the dispute. Though initial responses to L'Absinthe may have focused on its squalid subject-matter, morality quickly ceased to play a role in the row, and the debate that played itself out in the newspapers over the course of the next several weeks dealt with topics of an artistic nature, and reflected a divided art world. L'Absinthe was the stimulus for critical discourse wherein a loosely knit group of newspaper art critics, who came to be known as the New Art Critics, defined themselves as champions of the new painting in England, as exemplified by this picture. The phenomenon of the New Art Criticism was, as the artist Walter Crane described, A new "boom" in criticism founded on 'Absinthe!''' (4) The controversy the exhibiting of L'Absinthe created can be attributed to the artistic advances put forward by the New Art Critics that 'Philistine' critics and the British public found difficult to digest. The crux of the polemic, therefore, centred more on the opposing artistic points of view of the New Art Critics and 'Philistine' art critics than on morality. A more typical work than L'Absinthe for the new and the old schools to fight over could not have been found,' explained a writer for the Studio. (v)

Initially critics did not find L'Absinthe rebarbative. In fact, the critic of The Times gave it a fairly judicious review, commenting on how far public opinion had come since Degas's initial reception in England a decade or two earlier when critics had castigated it. L'Absinthe received praise from Elizabeth Robins Pennell (6) who described the painting as 'grim in its realism', yet 'incomparable in its art'. (7) DS MacColl, (8) however, provided the most outspoken championship of L'Absinthe, writing:

But L'Absinthe, by Degas, is the inexhaustible picture, the one that draws you back and back again. It sets the standard by which too many of the would-be 'decorative' inventions in the exhibition are cruelly judged ... M. Degas understands his people absolutely; there is no false note of an imposed and blundering sentiment, but exactly as a man with a just eye and comprehending mind and power of speech could set up that scene for us in the fit words, whose mysterious relations of idea should affect us as beauty, so does this master of character, of form, of colour, watch till the cafe table-tops and the mirror and the water-bottle and the drinks and the features yield up to him their mysterious affecting note. The subject, if you like, was repulsive as you would have seen it, before Degas made it his. If it appears so still, you may make up your mind that the confusion and affliction from which you suffer are incurable. (9) This article, particularly the assertion that L'Absinthe should be regarded as a standard for art, opened the floodgates for subsequent debate. George Moore sided with MacColl while 'Philistine' art critics John Alfred Spender and Harry Quilter sprung up as their opponents. Several artists also joined the squabble, including Walter Crane and William Blake Richmond, on the side of the 'Philistine' art critics, and Walter Sickert, backing the New Art Critics. JA Spender emerged at the outset as MacColl's chief antagonist, writing, '... the "new critics" are in possession of most of the weekly and several of the daily papers, and with one accord they tell us the same thing. These two sodden people are their ideal ...' (10) As previous discussions of the debate about L'Absinthe have indicated, the ostensible 'immorality' of the picture's subject incited hostility in conservative critics, who were accustomed to reading disease and degradation into certain types of depictions of the female body. (11) This view had intensified with the publication of Max Nordau's Degeneration in 1892-93, in which the author drew a parallel between disease and decadent art and diagnosed extensive mental illness amongst avant-garde artists and writers. The book 'became the stick with which the British conservative press beat the decadents for their lack of morality'. (12)

Spender, assistant-editor of the Westminster Gazette, then a new paper founded just weeks before the opening of the 1893 Grafton Gallery exhibition, wished to call attention to the launch of the paper by injecting some high-profile controversy onto its pages. Having previously been the assistant-editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Spender was an experienced journalist. A 'jack-of-all-trades', as he described himself, he merely dabbled in art criticism. Spender's confession that as an art critic he 'contrived to make a little splash' (13) suggests that he sparked off the L'Absinthe row primarily to stir up controversy. His journalistic know-how provided him with the wisdom to know that one must select one's targets carefully: 'It is a rule of journalism, that if you shoot at everything you bring nothing down.' (14) The New Art Critics provided an ideal target for Spender. Their articles were a conspicuous presence in the London press and would have been familiar to a wide audience. As much as Spender may have appeared to be spearheading a campaign against immorality, his true motives were quite different.


On 18 March 1893, in a rejoinder to Spender, MacColl defined the new criticism as follows:

For what is the New Art Criticism? It is simply the attempt to apply to current art the same standards which we apply to ancient art, to disengage from the enormous stream of picture-producers the one or two contemporary masters who are worthy to be named beside the ancients, the one or two promising talents that may some day deserve the same praise; to refuse steadfastly to confound the very. good with the pretty bad, and to take mediocrity at its own estimate. (15) Here, MacColl succeeded in explaining the ultimate goal of the New Art Critics, but he failed to clarify, why he valued L'Absinthe, or in other words, he neglected to outline the criteria by which he judged a work of art. Fuelled by further 'Philistine' attacks, fired this time by the artist WB Richmond, MacColl proceeded to explain himself over the course of the next four weeks, presenting a technical defence of his position. (16) The majority of the discourse thereafter took place between MacColl and Richmond, not between MacColl and Spender, and as a result, the topic of debate shifted from morality to art, Richmond and MacColl representing the archetypal 'Philistine' and 'anti-Philistine' respectively.

History of Degas's work in England and other related events leading up to 1893

Degas's first showing in England took place in 1873, at which time his sporting scenes, exhibited at the galleries of the French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, received little attention. The art dealer Charles Deschamps introduced Degas's art to English audiences when he included his work in an exhibition entitled 'French and Other Foreign Artists' in 1875. In April 1876, Deschamps displayed L'Absinthe at his gallery on New Bond Street, London in the 'Twelfth Exhibition of Pictures by Modern French Artists', where four of Degas's pictures, including The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage (1874, Musee, d'Orsay, Paris), caught the eye of Captain Henry Hill, an avid art collector. This painting, along with others from Hill's collection, was later sold at Christie's, where the artist Walter Sickert purchased it.

In September 1876 Hill also bought L'Absinthe. Degas produced the painting between 1875 and 1876 with the intention of exhibiting it at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. It is assumed that Degas did not complete it in time and subsequently sent it to London instead. A catalogue from the second Impressionist exhibition includes L'Absinthe, but reviews of the show do not mention the piece. Soon after procuring L'Absinthe, Hill loaned it to the 'Third Annual Winter Exhibition' in Brighton. Anticipating ridicule regarding the picture's unfinished appearance, Hill carefully classified his entry as a sketch, submitting it under the title A Sketch in a French Cafe. In spite of this, critics castigated its 'slap-dash' manner and 'very disgusting novelty of subject'. (17) The painting then returned to Paris where it was...

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