New Acquisition The Absinthe Drinkers by Jean-François Raffaëlli Welcomes Visitors to the Summer Impressionist Exhibition at the de Young Museum

San Francisco, California, May 2010—Coincidentally timed just as the special exhibition Birth of Impressionism opens at the de Young Museum, John E. Buchanan, Jr., the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, announces the acquisition of The Absinthe Drinkers (Les buveurs d’absinthe), 1881, by the French painter Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850–1924). Widely regarded as one of the artist’s most important and accomplished paintings, The Absinthe Drinkers will temporarily grace the entrance of the Birth of Impressionism exhibition this summer before settling into its permanent home in gallery 19 at the Legion of Honor.

This painting joins a distinguished group of Raffaëlli’s works on paper already in the Fine Arts Museums’ collection and will greatly enhance the Legion’s presentation of 19th-century French paintings. Says Buchanan of the painting, “The Absinthe Drinkers had a remarkable debut in 1881 and it continued to captivate viewers at the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Art institute of Chicago in 1895, and the National Gallery in 1986. I am thrilled that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco was able to seize the rare opportunity to own and present the painting to our visitors. This acquisition underscores the importance of collecting the best of kind.”

The Absinthe Drinkers caused a sensation when exhibited in the sixth Impressionist group show in 1881. Hoping to heighten the appeal and visitorship of the Impressionist exhibitions, Degas wanted to increase the number of figural paintings included. Thus he invited the Realist painter Raffaëlli to participate. Not stylistically an Impressionist, Raffaëlli nonetheless employs the characteristic elements of what was then called the “New Painting.” His paintings focus on contemporary subject matter, particularly depicting ordinary people caught in routine activities of urban life. Formal devices, such as unexpected special perspectives and unusual croppings, coupled with an attention to the two-dimensional surface effects created by paint on canvas are typically avant-garde elements shared by Raffaëlli, Degas and others.

As illustrated in this painting, Raffaëlli excelled at capturing the coarse milieu of the Parisian banlieue—the marginal areas beyond the city then being colonized by industrialization and urban sprawl. Contemporary critics regarded Raffaëlli’s social realism highly. One noted, “Thanks to M. Raffaëlli, the banlieue of Paris—this intermediary and bizarre world, at once swarming and abandoned, no longer the city and not yet the country… has won its place in the idea.” The figural types in The Absinthe Drinkers are described as “poverty-stricken wrecks” with “such a particular character of suffering and of revolt, such a poignant color of melancholy.” The appeal of this gritty image is its grand portrayal of the devastating addiction to the powerful drink absinthe. Managing to bridge the gap between establishment and the avant-garde, Raffaëlli was among the few painters who exhibited at the Salon and with the Impressionists.

Managing to bridge the gap between establishment and the avant-garde, Raffaëlli was among the few painters who exhibited at both the Salon and with the Impressionists. Infuriating and co-opting both, he deftly capitalized on the most provocative aspects of each artistic faction, and in the process left a colorful legacy documenting the realities of urban life in late 19th-century Paris.

There is more Raffaëlli to be seen in San Francisco this summer. An earlier masterwork, The Family of Jean-le-Boîteux, Peasants from Plougasnou, 1876, can be seen in the exhibition Birth of Impressionism at the de Young through September 6. Four additional works by Raffaëlli are on view in the exhibition Impressionist Paris: City of Light at the Legion June 5 through September 26. They are:

  • La Scala and Spectators, 1886, color gillotages
  • Street Scene with Two Figures and a Dog, ca. 1890, oil on canvas
  • Self Portrait, 1893, color drypoint
  • Fashionable Young Woman on the Boulevard des Italiens, Paris, ca. 1899, oil on canvas

Taken as a whole, this extraordinary group of paintings and prints, along with the iconic The Absinthe Drinkers, reflects a profound shift in mood from melancholy to tranquility in Raffaëlli’s later career. Looking back from the turn of the twentieth century, the artist recognized this change in the tenor of his work as autobiographical in nature, explaining that it echoed the improvement in his personal fortunes. “My artistic successes have been such that my bitterness has fled,” he noted, adding “my earlier admirers probably say still that they like better the Raffaëlli of the first period, while others admire more my new dreams.”