Part of the Café Scene
It was not the use of light alone, however, that separated the impressionists from previous schools of art; it was their concentration on “modern life.” With realism as their guiding theme, they turned from carefully arranged backgrounds and forced poses to scenes from everyday life, and beer went with them. Françoise Cachin in his book, Manet, described the emergence of beer: “…brasseries began to multiply, beer, considered before the war to be a peasant’s drink, had become the respectable drink. Sitting in front of a … glass of beer, Manet would observe life of the streets, and discuss ideas with his fellow artists.”
Indeed, a glass of beer in a friendly café describes the setting in which Manet preferred to discuss art with his peers, Degas, Monet, Zola and Astruc. Before the war, his favorite was the Café Guerbois. Following 1870 he held court at several, including the Café de Bade, Pavard’s Rotisserie, the Brasserie de Reichshoffen, and the Nouvelle Athenes on Place Pigalle. Small wonder that beer was so prominent in his work.
Impressionistic work could also extend beyond mere depiction to provide social commentary. The renewed belief that beer was a healthy and acceptable drink was no better illustrated than in a pair of works by Manet and Edgar Degas. During 1875 Degas completed the “Absinthe Drinker,” in its composition ably projecting absinthe’s reputation as a vile and debilitating intoxicant. Walter Crane, on viewing the canvas in 1893, called it a study in human degradation. Manet, who admired Degas, contrasted the “Absinthe Drinker” in 1879, with “At the Café Concert” in which quite healthy looking subjects enjoy a glass of beer.
Degas was among those with more than just a passing interest in the life of Paris. His notebook contained a self reminder for the artist to “Draw all kinds of everyday objects.” Other impressionists were of the same mind, and their works depicted Parisians’ enthusiasm for beer. That fondness of beer brought the beverage to nearly every type of social gathering. Naturally, the artists then placed it in their works.